On November 17, 1998, Governing Magazine names Seattle Public Utilities director Diana Gale one of America’s Public Officials of the Year at a Washington, D. C. banquet attended by President Bill Clinton. Gale receives the prestigious honor in part for her concerted efforts to create and implement Seattle’s successful recycling program, and for her cost-saving strategies in the construction of the Tolt watershed filtration plant.
Setting a Standard for the Nation
Diana Gale was named to head Seattle’s solid waste agency in 1988, after serving as a city council legislative director. Within a year, she streamlined the city’s trash-handling system by making it easier for the public to recycle their garbage. At the time, protesters were fighting a proposed garbage incinerator, and the community was looking for “greener” ways of dealing with waste. Gale implemented a curbside recycling program that has since become one of the most successful in the country.
She also led the way for a “pay as you toss” garbage contract that put an end to the flat-rate, unlimited garbage service that had been in place for years. Wasteful households saw their collection charges escalate dramatically, whereas households that recycled received big breaks. Some predicted a ratepayer revolt, but in the end city residents embraced the changes. Seattle significantly decreased the amount of trash going to public landfills.
The end result was that from 1988 to 1995, Seattle’s population grew by 5 percent, while the amount of solid waste sent to landfills decreased by 8.5 percent annually. Through the efforts of Gale and her management team, the city of Seattle became a nationwide model for how municipalities could deal with solid waste problems.
"Water, Water, Everywhere…”
Another challenge tackled by Gale was the task of keeping Seattle’s drinking water clean. In 1995, she was chosen to head the Seattle Water Department. Faced with a $1 billion or more backlog of nearly century-old pipes and reservoirs, she convinced the city to raise water rates by 9 percent a year, but along with that, decreased costs by 25 percent. Using a “design-build-operate” contracting process (that is, negotiating a unified contract that covered the entire process, rather than parceling out each phase of the work in a separate contract), nearly $70 million was saved in the construction of a new filtration plant for the Tolt River water supply. The Tolt River provides nearly one third of Seattle’s water.
Seattle’s main source of water is from the Cedar River watershed. Rather than building a new filtration plant there, Gale convinced the Environmental Protection Agency to agree to a less-expensive ozonation technology, saving customers even more money. Gale has pointed out that, “Your best environmental solutions tend to be your least-cost solutions, if you’re careful about them.”
A Combined Effort
In 1996, the city of Seattle merged the Solid Waste Utility, the Drainage and Wastewater Utility, the Water Department, and the customer services functions of Seattle City Light. Gale was the logical choice to head the newly formed Seattle Public Utilities. Although the merging of diverse government services might have been an uphill battle, Gale’s team-building skills have already made SPU one of the most successful municipal programs in the history of Seattle.