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Public meets Austin Energy candidates

Thursday, July 1, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

More than 100 people packed a room at Austin Energy headquarters Wednesday evening to meet and ask questions of the two remaining finalists in competition to become the city-owned utility’s next general manager.


Larry Weis, general manager and chief executive officer of the Turlock (Calif.) Irrigation District, and David Wright, general manager of the City of Riverside (Calif.) Public Utilities, took the lectern to introduce themselves and answer a range of questions, including how many megawatts of renewable energy their respective utilities can generate.


Weis said the key issue facing Austin Energy today is finding an affordable way to implement the energy goals the City Council approved in April, formally called the Austin Energy Resource, Generation, and Climate Protection Plan to 2020. The plan calls for having 35 percent of the city’s energy come from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power, among other goals. However, Council has directed staff members to evaluate the affordability of the plan.


Weis said the utility faces many issues, including reducing the city’s carbon footprint, increasing energy efficiency, and expanding renewable power. The Turlock utility generates 28 percent of its needs through renewable energy currently; Wright’s Riverside utility is at 20 percent renewable energy. Currently, 10 percent of Austin’s energy production comes from renewable sources, mostly solar and wind.


“I realize there’s a lot of diverse opinions around how it ought to be done, how fast, and you know that’s the challenge. That’s why I’m interested in the job, because it will definitely get you up early in the morning and make you think what the solutions are,” said Weis, who has 28 years of experience in the electric and water utility business and draws an annual salary of $280,000.


One audience member asked Wright, whose annual salary in Riverside is $239,000, how he would move the 2020 energy plan forward.


“That plan needs to be reviewed. It’s not a plan that’s set in stone, so how do we start moving forward looking at implementing those, looking at what the affordability is, and then what sort of priorities we can look at?” Wright said. “I’m very big about consensus and balance. There’s an issue of affordability and an issue of resource portfolio mix that has got to be balanced. And again we’re trying to bring everyone to some sort of middle-of-the-road place.”


Whoever is selected will replace Roger Duncan, who was paid $216,000 per year before he retired as general manager at the end of February.


A third finalist, Ronald Davis, general manager of Burbank Water and Power, a community-owned utility that serves the Los Angeles suburb, withdrew his candidacy last week. Rumors circulated around City Hall that his employer offered him more than the $240,000 he had been earning. However, Davis did not return a phone call to his office earlier this week and declined Wednesday through City of Burbank spokesman Keith Sterling to comment about his withdrawal.


Before Wednesday’s meeting started, staff members handed out candidate feedback forms to the audience with designated spaces where they could jot down their observations and each finalist’s strengths and weaknesses.


Brigid Shea, one of the members of the environmental panel interviewing the candidates, said she was disappointed.


“I really wanted to come away from this process tonight feeling one of these was the right person to lead Austin Energy into the future, and I really don’t think either one of them is the right person,” she said. “They’re perfectly nice people but I don’t think either is the right person to lead us into the future.”


Shea was among a group of local environmental activists who sent a letter to City Manager Marc Ott earlier this week stating that neither of the finalists meets the job description. They also are concerned that the finalists lead smaller utilities than Austin’s, the 9th-largest public-owned utility in the country, according to Austin Energy’s Web site. It serves 407,000 residential and commercial customers and has an annual operating budget of $1.3 billion.


The finalists are scheduled to meet with representatives of the business community, as well as environmental activists, at City Hall today. Members from the environmental group are scheduled to meet with Weis and Wright in the morning, while the business representatives are scheduled for an afternoon meeting.

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