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City Manager and others visit California to vet Austin Energy candidate

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

City Manager Marc Ott was scheduled to spend today in California, along with a group of Austin community members, to visit the utility run by Larry Weis, now Ott’s top pick to head Austin Energy.


According to the city’s public information office, half a dozen community members and city staff members were scheduled to accompany Ott on the trip to the Turlock Irrigation District. They are: Robert Goode, the public utility’s interim general manager; Jason Alexander, executive assistant to Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald; Eliza May, a formal Council candidate who is active in the community; Joseph Parker, pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church; Martha Smiley, a local attorney and a member of a business panel that interviewed candidates last month; and Jim Marston, director of the Texas regional office of the Environmental Defense Fund.


Ott told City Council in an e-mail Friday that he thought Weis was the best pick for the position (See In Fact Daily, July 12, 2010). The other finalist was David Wright, general manager of the City of Riverside (Calif.) Public Utilities. A third finalist, Ronald Davis, general manager of Burbank Water and Power, a community-owned utility that serves the City of Burbank, Calif., withdrew his candidacy late last month.


Weis could not be reached for comment.


Reyne Telles, a city spokesman, told In Fact Daily on Tuesday that Ott is scheduled to return to Austin on Thursday.


Telles said the city manager hopes to make a final decision about the general manager position by the end of the month. City Council does not have to vote on Ott’s choice.


“It seems to me the process is moving along as it should,” City Council Member Randi Shade said Tuesday. “I think it’s really important to do additional due diligence, which is what that trip is all about.”


The general manager position is one of the most important appointments Ott will make as city manager. Beyond the fact that the utility generates millions in revenue for other city operations, Austin Energy is under growing pressure to find ways to increase the use of affordable renewable energy and come up with a new business model that accounts for less energy use as a result of efficiency efforts.


More immediately, Austin Energy faces potential staffing issues — one-third of the staff is eligible to retire within five years — and is gearing up for a rate case before the Public Utility Commission of Texas in 2012.


On Monday, Council Member Bill Spelman expressed concern about whether Weis is prepared to graduate to a city of Austin’s size or to handle its political atmosphere.


On Tuesday, Shade said she thinks Weis is a good choice.


“I’m inclined to believe that he is ready to make the step to a utility of our size,” she said. “I’m very excited about the potential for better synergies between the operations and sustainability efforts and conservation efforts that occur within our electric utility and our water utility.”


Shade added that Weis, who has 28 years in the electric and water utility business, has significant management, financial, and operations experience at major utilities.


When asked her thoughts about Weis, Council Member Sheryl Cole said, “We can only hope that Mr. Weis has Austin’s commitment to climate protection and affordability.” She noted the decision is up to the city manager.

Council Member Chris Riley said he preferred to wait until he received feedback about today’s meetings in Turlock before commenting about Weis.

Efforts to contact other Council members or Ott were unsuccessful.

The Turlock Irrigation District has an annual budget of about $460 million and serves 100,000 electric customers, according to the district’s public information office. Austin Energy’s annual budget is $1.3 billion and the utility services about 407,000 customers.


The City Council is on break until its next meeting on July 29.

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