Iconic Alaskan: Jim Posey
Iconic Alaskan Jim Posey in front of the Kincaid Chalet at Kincaid Park in West Anchorage. Posey is proud of the job they did to rebuild while he was running the muni’s Cultural and Recreational Services Department, which he refers to as the Department of FUN.
© Chris Arend
Jim Posey was ten and living in Beaumont, Texas, when the Alaska Statehood Act passed in 1958, stripping Texas of its bragging right as the nation’s largest state. “Like all Texans I had an attitude about being number one. It bothered me that Texas was no longer the mighty, bold, and grand state of our state song.”
Curious about the place that had usurped his home state’s top spot, Posey started reading about it.
“In a National Geographic article about life in Alaska, I read about kids going to school in the dark. I thought that it didn’t sound so bad. I also knew the president was not going to go back on his word to let Alaska in, and I decided if you can’t beat them, join them.”
Posey made it to Alaska in 1979 to work for Arco and to begin his career here. All five of his children were born here.
Now sixty-seven, Posey retired at the end of 2013 as general manager of Anchorage’s city-owned Municipal Light & Power (ML&P).
Posey’s working life began at an early age. “I started working with my dad at his cleaning job at a savings and loan in Beaumont before I was eleven. I got my Social Security card in 1957, when one of the bank’s vice presidents decided that I should get paid for my work.”
He continued that through high school and his first year at Lamar University in Beaumont, which he left to join the US Air Force. He served as a combat crewmember at the Titan II missile underground complex in Wichita, Kansas, and began taking classes at Wichita State University. After leaving the Air Force he finished his undergraduate degree, got his Juris Doctor from the law school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and got a job in Arco’s land department in Dallas.
Posey worked on the Prudhoe Bay oil field unit agreement, but what he really wanted was to get to Alaska, where the economy was booming. “I knew that the real opportunities were in Alaska.”
Getting to Alaska
A year later, Arco moved Posey to Denver. He stayed another year with the company. When it appeared that Alaska was not in the offing, he quit Arco and joined Worldwide Energy Corporation, a small company dealing in oil and gas in Canada and the United States, as well as gold claims in Alaska.
Then in 1979 Arco began developing its Kuparuk River field. “They came to me and asked if I still wanted to go to Alaska and flew me and my wife Sandi up for a look. I liked the offer and we found a house. Within seven days we were back in Alaska.”
The highlights of Posey’s time with Arco include helping get the Kuparuk oil field online, developing a good working relationship with the North Slope Borough, and an accomplishment he is particularly proud of—ensuring that the village of Nuiqsut, near the oil fields, got natural gas to replace expensive fuel oil.
Oil was flowing from the Kuparuk field by December 31, 1981. “It was the first oil to flow in two years,” Posey recalls. “We unitized the field, got all the state and federal permits, and built a pipeline in a remarkably short time.”
His work at Arco in Colorado gave Posey experience in working with local governments, which helped when he negotiated permit terms with North Slope Borough.
“In Colorado we had to go through the county to get all of our above-ground permits. We knew it was important to respect and involve the local government in our planning. It was easy for us to accept that the North Slope Borough wanted to play a part.”
Posey travelled often for meetings in Barrow and Nuiqsut and built strong relationships with local people. “I often spent part of my holidays going to Nuiqust and delivering gifts of food and fruits as part of our holiday cheer,” he says.
The people of Nuiqsut showed their appreciation by giving Posey gifts of their precious muktuk at the holidays. Posey said he always brought it home—and enjoyed it.
On the North Slope he also met Harmon “Bud” Helmericks, a bush pilot, author, and adventurer, who had homesteaded on the Colville River delta since the early 1950s. “I was visiting Bud one day and he told me that he hated looking to the south anymore because it pained him to see all the gas being flared” at Arco’s new Alpine field.
Posey thought about Helmericks’ words. He knew that Nuiqsut had long wanted gas from the nearby fields. He also knew that the Alpine field would bring oil and gas development closer to it.
“When I worked at Worldwide Energy I knew that in Canada, if we had a gas well operating on a farm, the farmer got enough gas to operate his irrigation system. I wanted to extend the same idea to Nuiqsut,” Posey says.
“The last thing I did before I retired from Arco in 1995 was to seal the deal to get gas to Nuiqsut. That village will have gas for the next thirty to forty years, or as long as the field operates.”
Private Work to Public Service
In 1995, during his sixteenth year in Alaska, Arco asked Posey to move to California. “Sandy and I had become used to Alaska and we had no desire to move. I was forty-nine and decided to pack my parachute. I left Arco on January 1, 1996.”
Posey knew he wouldn’t be idle for long. “We had just elected a new governor [Tony Knowles] and I knew he’d want me to do something in his administration.”
That hunch was right. About four months later Knowles appointed Posey to the Alaska Public Utilities Commission (APUC), now the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.
“I came on board at the time when local utilities were being privatized. And the telecommunications industry, in particular, was in tremendous growth and turmoil.
“I managed the docket for the sale of the Fairbanks utilities, which included water and sewer and power and everything, and also the docket for the sale of Anchorage Telephone Utility [ATU] to Alaska Communications Systems [ACS],” he says.
Mark Foster, Anchorage School District CFO and a former APUC commissioner, is familiar with Posey’s work at APUC. “I watched Jim work. He listened very carefully and thoughtfully to the arguments and evidence and came up with a fair disposition.”
What impressed Foster most was Posey’s evenhanded and thorough evaluation of the different arguments presented to the commission, especially during the contentious privatization of telecommunications.
“Jim had to deal with some challenging balancing acts in telecommunications, such as who was responsible for what cost, which arose with AT&T, GCI, and ACS. The arguments got heated, and the cases became complicated, but he worked his way through them. He was able to discern the solid evidence from the lighter evidence that was offered up,” Foster says.
Posey says he was satisfied with the privatization effort overall, but feels that the Municipality of Anchorage waited too long to sell ATU to ACS and ended up with less money. “But in the end it worked out and the city got a good enough deal,” he says.
After ending his APUC term in 1999, Posey took a hiatus from public service and turned his attention to another pressing matter—his children’s education. “We homeschooled all our kids because when my daughter was at elementary school in Bayshore Elementary we didn’t like the lack of decorum and family values or the presence of drugs,” he says.
Dissatisfied with public schools, the Poseys became involved with the formation and operation of the Family Partnership Home School, a home school support charter school within the Anchorage School District.
But in the late 1990s the school’s enrollment, which had reached nearly eight hundred, plunged to about half when the school district forbade children from religious schools from participating in its programs.
“I was on the school’s board and took a year off to help rebuild it. It was our school and our kids were still in it.” The effort succeeded; the school is still in operation.
Having accomplished that, Posey began thirteen years at the Municipality of Anchorage in two jobs that he calls the “most fun” of his career.
After George Wuerch became mayor in 2000, he asked Posey to run ML&P, but Posey’s term at APUC placed a restriction on working for a utility.
“Wuerch then appointed me to run the Department of FUN, which is what I called the Cultural and Recreational Services Department because it had all the fun things attached to it—parks, libraries, swimming pools, the convention center, and the museum,” Posey says.
© Chris Arend
Jim Posey inside the Kincaid Chalet.
When the APUC restriction ended in 2003, Posey became ML&P’s general manager. His tenure at ML&P is notable for significant achievements—energy conservation, rebuilding, and modernizing the utility.
A utility’s major assets generally have a twenty-five- to thirty-year life and need replacing after that. Soon after taking over, Posey set to modernizing ML&P.
Dan Helmick, former regulatory affairs manager at ML&P, complimented Posey’s approach. “For Jim, the modernizing was both about replacing the old equipment and also making sure that his customers wouldn’t have to pay higher costs than absolutely necessary because of those changes,” Helmick says.
An important measure of Posey’s success is that ML&P provided its customers with continuous service 99.99 percent of the time during his ten years.
Posey, too, is pleased with the changes at the utility. “We accomplished our goals. We made all our substations modern and cleaner and removed nearly all the PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] from our systems. Our new generation equipment is 90 percent cleaner in air emissions and 30 to 40 percent more efficient in fuel usage.” The fuel efficiency translates into use of less natural gas to generate a kilowatt of electricity.
Another accomplishment for Posey was the successful management of ML&P’s ownership share in the Beluga gas field. In the mid-1990s Shell was pulling out of Alaska and selling its assets, including its one-third share of the Beluga field. Rick Mystrom, then Anchorage’s mayor, appointed a panel that included Posey to explore the purchase of Shell’s interest in Beluga.
The panel voted for the purchase, making ML&P one of the first utilities in the nation to own its own gas. “It was the best investment the city has ever made. The field has produced money and benefits and paid about $128 million in fees, dividends, and taxes to the city” during his tenure, Posey says.
Energy conservation was another area of interest. The utility promoted it and Posey complimented entities that adopted energy conservation either in the design of new structures or in retrofit of existing ones.
The Alaska Center for the Performing Arts is a prime example, Posey says. “The center looked at its equipment, lighting, and whatever used electricity, and found ways to reduce its electricity costs by 20 percent to 25 percent.”
Although Posey advocates conservation, he is not enamored with wind power and opposed ML&P’s buying power from Cook Inlet Region Inc.’s [CIRI] wind farm on Fire Island. The power is too expensive and not price competitive, he says. ML&P’s customers are in some of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods and many of them can’t afford it.
Customers want wind power, Posey says, but they are not willing to buy it at the price at which it is available. “The cost differential is 100 percent. ML&P produces power for $50 to $60 per megawatt and it would cost $110 per megawatt to buy it from CIRI, according to the price it charges Chugach Electric,” he says.
An organization’s success lies not only in good management but also in its employees, and Posey excelled at keeping his employees satisfied, says Elvi Gray-Jackson, an Anchorage Assembly member. Gray-Jackson worked for Posey for a few years at ML&P and admires his leadership qualities.
“Most people at the top don’t make employees feel that they really matter. Employees who feel they are not important don’t want to do their jobs. But Jim made people want to do their job and do it well,” Gray-Jackson says.
It’s difficult for people with demanding jobs to find time for community service, but Posey managed to find the balance between the two. “For about thirty of my thirty-four years here, I have been involved with nonprofits that are part of the safety net for the city,” he says.
Russell Pounds, owner of Pacific Rim Media, worked with Posey on different occasions. “Jim is passionate about giving back to the community.”
Pounds recalls the help Posey provided to last year’s Kids Day. That day is organized by the local nonprofit Anchorage’s Promise, which provides a school club for children. “For Kids Day last year, which drew about twenty thousand people, the students came up with an idea of handing out small cards with positive messages to help reduce bullying in schools.
“Jim decided that ML&P should support that program—‘Random Texts of Kindness’—and we produced a dozen different card designs and handed them out at the event.”
Posey, retired as of January 1 this year, plans to remain active both with consulting jobs and with his community service. He looks forward to polishing his cross-country skiing skills and says both he and Sandi like it here too much to think about leaving.
Alaska, he says, has been awesome for him in every way—in its size, its beauty, and its opportunities. “I wouldn’t have had the chance to work on such interesting and important jobs elsewhere.”
Shehla Anjum is an Anchorage-based writer.