The two candidates for Grays Harbor Public Utility District commissioner both promise to oppose investing in unrelated economic development, but they have starkly different views on Initiative-1631 and the administration of the public power utility.
Incumbent Arie Callaghan and challenger Allen Werth are vying to represent the eastern part of the utility district, while all county voters determine who holds the office for its six-year term.
Callaghan is running for his second term for the Commission No. 1 position and currently is president of the three-member PUD Board of Commissioners, and Werth has been a member of the Oakville City Council.
Callaghan has worked for Mason Trucking in Aberdeen for the past two decades. Since becoming commissioner six years ago in his first bid for public office, Callaghan also has been selected to the board of Energy Northwest, which runs the Columbia Generating Station in the Tri-Cities that provides some of the PUD’s electricity.
“There’s so much that goes into turning on the lights and having the lights come one,” Callaghan said. “A lot of people don’t understand all there is involved with that.”
Callaghan notes the PUD services 33,000 homes and 2,220 line miles that have to be maintained, with a service area that goes from the Grays Harbor-Thurston-Mason County border to Kalaloch on the Olympic Peninsula.
“All of that has to be paid for and maintained. We have a $120 million budget, and it costs almost $10 million a month to keep the utility up and running,” Callaghan said.
Werth said in his voters information that he is “a longstanding public servant, veteran and state employee.” In addition to his council position, he serves on the board of advisors for Pierce College, and is president of the state employees union for Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. He has a bachelors degree in law and justice, and currently is employed in community corrections.
“As the former Exalted Ruler of the Lakewood Elks Lodge, I was proud to be the first to include women as members,” Werth said.
At a recent candidates forum in Ocean Shores, Werth described himself as “a father, a husband, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, and I’ve lived in Washington for a little over 40 years.”
Both candidates were asked about the PUD’s recent decision to oppose state Initiative 1631, which would enact a carbon emissions fee on large emitters. The fee would be $15 per metric ton of carbon beginning on Jan. 1, 2020, and would increase after that.
Werth said he believes “it is necessary to do something. Regardless of whether we like it or not, we do have an obligation to our children and our grandchildren, and we have to do something about what we are doing to the world. We can’t destroy the planet.”
Callaghan, on the other hand, said he believes the initiative would “have an effect on everybody’s energy supply. In the big picture, the carbon issues are something to be concerned about, but I’m more concerned about a little old lady who is huddled in front of a space heater to keep her house warm, and how is she going to pay her PUD bill.”
Callaghan noted that a previous initiative, Initiative-937 with mandates for renewable resources, costs the PUD about $14 million to comply with the requirements.
“People want the best deal they can get on their power and electricity,” Callaghan said.
The two candidates clearly have similar views about the role the PUD should play in the overall economic development of the area.
“The role of the PUD is to attract businesses to the area with the best rates and services we can provide for them. I don’t think that’s our job to be involved in economic development,” Callaghan said. “We’re there to try to facilitate industry coming to the area. I think it’s important, but our role is to provide the best service we can.”
One of the PUD’s ongoing efforts, Callaghan added, is to extend fiber optic services to the rural parts of Grays Harbor County, but “ratepayers shouldn’t have to shoulder that cost.”
Werth has been critical of the PUD’s past efforts in being involved in projects such as investing in the ill-fated attempts to keep Grays Harbor Paper from closing.
“I believe that past practices is a good indicator of future performance. Even if they had been good investments, they would have been wrong,” Werth said.
“I believe you are the steward of someone else’s money, you do what’s right.”
Werth also favors efforts to expand fiber optic service: “It’s necessary. Hopefully, growth is going to happen and along with it will be new industries.”
Callaghan believes the current commissioners have “laid a foundation for a stable financial climate at the PUD. There are some tough decisions we have to make and we understand that. We have tried to trim staff back where we can, but we have to keep a safe and reliable system for our customers.”
Werth said it’s time for a change on the commission: “I believe an informed voter is a better voter. Get on the internet, read the minutes for yourself of the last few years. Make the decision. If you like the way things have been going, then by all means vote the same way.”