In the final days of his tenure as general manager of Chelan County PUD, I had the opportunity to chat with Steve Wright about what has been accomplished, his views on the community and what he’s planning to do next.
Wright began his career in the early 1980s working for the Bonneville Power Administration. He rose through the ranks and ultimately served as BPA administrator in Portland, a position of national significance, before being hired at Chelan County PUD. It was surprising to attract an executive with his credentials and skills to a mid-Columbia public utility.
Wright told me he was surprised and delighted to discover the pervasive spirit of public service in our valley. “There is a sense of community service here that’s greater than any place I’ve ever lived and there is a kindness here that’s different from what I found in other places,” Wright said. He made his own contributions as a board member of the Community Foundation of North Central Washington.
Chelan County PUD has had its share of ups and downs over the years. The nadir was in the early 2000s when the organization’s leaders abandoned the commitment to public service. Transparency was nonexistent and personal gain seemed to trump public purpose. The leadership at the top of the organization was dysfunctional and an embarrassment to the public and the PUD’s employees.
Things started turning around with the hiring of ethical, public service-driven leaders, starting with Rich Riazzi, followed by John Janney and Wright.
It seems to me that one of Wright’s greatest contributions was in bringing a rigorous, systematic approach to running the utility’s operations based on measurable results. Tracking results and identifying the root cause of failures became standard operating procedure.
PUD Board member Dennis Bolz gives Wright a ton of credit for developing a high-performance culture at the utility. When major challenges emerged, Wright’s emphasis was on getting people working together to solve the issue. In the bad old days, people would have been looking for scapegoats.
Wright, a demanding but soft-spoken leader, was relentless in pursuit of the utility serving the public interest. “Steve was challenging people to work harder and be more effective, Bolz observed.
Another aspect of Wright’s success was his commitment to public engagement in setting the goals of the agency. Getting meaningful public involvement is not easy, Wright acknowledges. It takes a significant amount of time, financial resources and creativity to figure out how to present often complex information in an understandable fashion to citizens and then develop the kinds of questions that allow people to provide useful input.
The two strategic planning efforts with considerable public input epitomized Wright’s public service commitment.
The 2015 plan established a few critical objectives — continue reducing the PUD’s debt, reinvest in aging electrical system assets and invest in PUD employees.
The results have been impressive. In 2010, the debt-to-equity ratio was 74 percent, which dropped to 60 percent by the time Wright was hired in 2013. Today, the ratio is less than 25 percent.
The PUD has also followed through on making significant infrastructure reinvestments including turbine refurbishment, fiber expansion, load growth and other upgrades. The PUD invested $37 million a year for the five years prior to Wright’s hiring. In the five years since the first plan, the utility averaged $84 million in investments to upgrade the assets that have created so much wealth. The PUD is building new offices at Olds Station, but that only accounted for about a third of the utility’s infrastructure investment in 2021, Wright said.
That 2015 plan also established what is called the public power benefit — that when the utility meets operational goals, the board would make investments to enhance the quality of life in Chelan County.
The public power benefit has funded things like a path to the Wenatchee River from the Plain substation to help those rafting the river, free passes for locals to parks, parks program enhancements and the like. The PUD invested $4 million per year in the program during the first four years, which was increased to $6 million by the board for the next five years. The utility has to hit its targets for the public power benefit to take effect.
Wright gives the PUD’s board of directors a lot of credit for setting the vision and being key drivers of success. The board established a guiding mantra “Creating the Best Value for the Most People for the Longest Time,” Wright said. I think that epitomizes how any public agency ought to be thinking.
With his tenure concluding at Chelan County PUD, Wright is planning on completing a book about leadership in public agencies. “The theme of the book really is around how you infuse the spirit of public service in a public service organization,” Wright told me.
His philosophy of public service and the systems he put in place to improve the effectiveness of the PUD should pay enormous dividends for years to come and create opportunities for his successor, Kirk Hudson, to make his own contributions to the operation.
Wright is excited about the future of the PUD and Chelan County — a future he has contributed to and helped shape. Fortunately, Wright and his wife Kathleen McNalty are planning on continuing to live in the valley and stay involved in making it a better place.
Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. He may be reached at email@example.com or (509) 665-1162.