By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
After Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) Director Ray Hoffman announced his decision last June to step down from his seven-and-a-half-year tenure, Mayor Ed Murray thanked him for his 26-year public utilities career in the city.
About a month later, Murray announced his selection of Philadelphia’s utility executive and planner as Hoffman’s successor.
Mami Hara, 53, took the oath to lead SPU at her Sept. 27 swearing-in ceremony at Seattle City Hall.
She “brings an incredible personal story to Seattle.
Her parents immigrated to the United States from Japan after the second World War and through a presidential arts commission. She is the first of her family to be born in the United States,” Murray said.
Hara led Philadelphia Water as its chief of staff until March of this year. The utility serves over 2 million customers with a $700 million a year budget and $6 billion in capital improvements.
Murray said, “Her experience and her commitment to equitable sustainable cities will serve SPU and the 1.3 million customers that it serves.”
“Thank you, mayor, for this opportunity and for placing your trust in me. It’s a huge honor,” Hara said. “I look forward to partnering and collaborating with all the sister agencies, council, mayor’s office, all of the communities of Seattle, tribal leaders, all comers, to serve the city and our customers.”
Born in Pennsylvania, she grew up in Massachusetts and Warrenton, Va., just one hour from Washington, D.C., where her father, Teruo Hara, taught at then-Corcoran School of Art (now Corcoran School of the Arts and Design) in the mid-1960s. An internationally known ceramic artist, he was born in Chiba, near Tokyo, Japan. Her mother, Tomoko, is from the Kansai area, southwest of Tokyo.
She and her two sisters lived in a Warrenton house with a south-facing wall of handmade windows visible from the outside and a special environment of creativity on the inside.
“There was always something being made. They were both craftspeople and designers,” Hara said. “They built the whole home, and they made everything that we used in the home. My mom designed and made all of our clothes.”
Her parents’ “very strong respect for the processes of the natural world” rubbed off on her, creating her desire to learn about designing with nature.
Under her father’s guidance and the help of Japanese and Korean craftsmen, she learned how to design and construct a residential stormwater management system using traditional Japanese techniques.
“That was a completely transformative experience for me. It really set me on the path in terms of my professional interest for the rest of my life,” Hara said. “After those experiences with my internship that started at (age) 13, by the time that I was applying for college, I knew that I wanted to make my life in environmental design and environmental protection.”
In 1982, she attended the University of Pennsylvania and later received her bachelor’s degree in design of the environment. While still an undergrad, she was recruited by Philadelphia-based environmental planning and design firm Wallace Roberts and Todd, and worked there for 24 years.
She said, “It gave me both the framework for understanding the issues that are facing cities and the country, but also a very tangible, real human sense of the concerns that people have.”
She earned her master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University in 1997 and worked as an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Hara began working at Philadelphia Water in 2011, providing overall leadership and direction for the utility’s many functions. Through collaboration with others and team-building, many awards soon followed.
City Councilmember Rob Johnson said after his first meeting with Hara, “She is an incredibly effective administrator with a strong streak of creativity.”
“I was in Philadelphia for 34 years, and I thought that I would spend my whole life there. My family, friends, my whole community has always been in Philadelphia as an adult,” she said.
One familiar theme that became the deciding factor for her move to the Pacific Northwest: Seattle’s very strong respect for its own natural world.
“I realized what an enormous opportunity it was to work in an environment with that kind of support (for environmental protection and equity) and that means everything in terms of making positive investments and positive change,” Hara said.
While other cities try to work on environmental protection and equity, she said, “I don’t know of so many that are committed to both and are trying to advance them together, and to see what that means in municipal programs.”
On the job for about a month, she says the new billing system for SPU and Seattle City Light has launched, one originally scheduled to start last October and is over budget.
There’s one message she received from the SPU staff. “They see the people they serve as partners, and they see my job and their job is to be the best partners possible in terms of being responsive and designing our work to meet the needs of the people we serve,” she said.
For more information about Seattle Public Utilities, go to seattle.gov/util.
James Tabafunda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.