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Low-profile Thurston PUD finds itself at center of campaign controversy

Thurston Public Utility District, one of the smallest local governments in the county, finds itself in the center of a testy political race between newcomer Andrew Saturn and incumbent Linda Oosterman, who holds the District 1 seat.
Thurston Public Utility District, one of the smallest local governments in the county, finds itself in the center of a testy political race between newcomer Andrew Saturn and incumbent Linda Oosterman, who holds the District 1 seat. Rolf Boone

Thurston Public Utility District, one of the smallest local governments in the county, finds itself in the center of a testy political race between PUD commission challenger Andrew Saturn and incumbent Linda Oosterman, who holds the District 1 seat.

The PUD administration has entered the fray after general manager John Weidenfeller became concerned about information being distributed by Saturn’s campaign. Weidenfeller sent a memo to the three sitting commissioners — Oosterman, Russ Olsen and Chris Stearns — about what he called “inaccurate and false information about the PUD.”

“This job is not a political job,” Weidenfeller said this week about his role as general manager of the utility. But he finally felt he needed to step in to correct the record.

He added: “I sent information to the board about what was being said and what the truth was.”

Weidenfeller said it was a first for him to get in the middle of a campaign. He said although he sent the memo to commissioners only, it has since been leaked, and a copy of the Oct. 12 memo was forwarded to the The Olympian. Saturn said he has seen it as well.

Saturn has defended himself with a point-by-point rebuttal of the memo, which he has posted online. He also spoke to The Olympian and sent a long email about the race to date.

“The points I’m making on the campaign trail and in my literature are that we should pay workers a living wage, we should do more for utility customers, we should do more for the environment, etc.,” he said.

Saturn suggested that his opponent, Oosterman, pressured Weidenfeller into writing the memo.

Oosterman was unequivocal in her response. “I absolutely did not,” she said.

Thurston PUD: What is it?

For those unfamiliar with the PUD, it is a water utility that operates 273 water systems, mostly in Thurston County but also in southern Pierce. More than 70 percent of its customers are in Thurston County — the largest service area is in the Tanglewilde area — and it provides water to residences, schools and businesses. Its annual operating budget is a little more than $5 million and it employs 25, Weidenfeller said.

Commissioners serve six-year terms and represent three districts in Thurston County, similar to county and Port of Olympia commissioners. Commissioners Olsen and Stearns are not up for election.

Oosterman, who previously worked in management, is retired. Saturn identifies himself on his website as a “union tech worker, designer, engineer, and lifelong progressive activist.”

Weidenfeller’s four-page memo addresses what he calls “statements made or published by Andrew Saturn.” He touches on commissioner salaries and employee pay, compliance with Washington state law and the Open Public Meetings Act, and conservation, low-income assistance programs and modernization.

At one point, Weidenfeller responds to the following claim by Saturn: “PUD commissioners meet once per month. It isn’t a full-time job. Why are they making nearly twice as much as the workers?”

Weidenfeller writes: “With the exception of the temporary seasonal employee, who only works five months a year, every Thurston PUD employee makes more than a Thurston PUD commissioner.”

The average wage of a Thurston PUD employee is about $60,000, while the commissioners, even with a recent raise in July, earn less than half that, data show. He also said that commissioners meet more than once a month.

“Thurston PUD commissioners meet at least twice a month, and sometimes more often. They also regularly attend other meetings and collaborate with other organizations in support of Thurston PUD commission priorities and business.”

Saturn said his comments have been mischaracterized.

“Many of the things claimed in the memo are not actually what I said at all,” he said. “ For example, the quote attributed to me, that commissioners ‘meet once per month’ is taken out of context. I’ve stated that they meet for less than 1 day (fewer than 8 hours) per month.”

He also questioned the entire memo.

“It’s an internal memo addressed to the commissioners — why do they need to be informed of the facts? Shouldn’t they already know? Does the PUD correct every statement made by a private citizen now?”

Former Olympia City Councilman Joe Hyer also has filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission about Saturn’s campaign statements about the PUD.

Saturn called the complaint “frivolous.”

2012 public power campaign

The 2018 Thurston PUD race has generated some controversy, but that’s not exactly something new.

In 2012, two forces were at work: One group wanted the PUD to offer public power and replace Puget Sound Energy as the primary utility in Thurston County, while a second group opposed that plan.

PSE ultimately poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort to defeat the public power initiative.

Fundraising this year is on a much more modest scale.

State Public Disclosure Commission data show that Oosterman has raised a little more than $3,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. Top donors include Keith Bausch, Katrina Simmons, Bill McGregor and Shawn Myers.

Saturn has raised a little more than $6,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. Top donors include Bev Bassett, Washington state Democrats, Sherri Goulet and Walt Jorgensen.

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