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City management moving Austin Energy’s legal staff to City Hall

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 by Michael Kanin

City management has ordered Austin Energy’s in-house attorneys to relocate from the utility’s headquarters on Barton Springs Road to City Hall. In a memo obtained by In Fact Daily, Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis announced the change to the Austin Energy executive team on March 9. According to the memo, the move will be complete by the end of this month.


As some staffers expressed concern over the loss of efficiency that the move might bring – in the middle of the utility’s first rate case in 17 years – the chair of the city’s Electric Utility Commission indicated that he will call for an item about the change to be placed on the agenda for the group’s next monthly meeting. The chair, Phillip Schmandt, declined any comment until he’d heard from a city official about why the move was made.


City spokesman Reyne Telles told In Fact Daily that the move was made for practical reasons. “The lawyers housed at Austin Energy have always been a part of the Law Department,” he said via email. “Their transition to City Hall is not about the rate case; it is about having a closer collaboration with colleagues and providing better service to the City as a whole.”


In his memo, Weis echoed Telles’ statement. “The change is aimed at enhancing coordination and resource availability between (Austin Energy) legal needs and the wider resources of the Law Department, which AE utilizes on a frequent basis,” he wrote.


According to the memo, Assistant City Attorney Andy Perny, who is lead counsel to Austin Energy, and six other members of the utility’s legal team will move to City Hall.


Member of the utility’s claims and collections department, who frequently work on legal matters involving damage to city property and failure to pay bills, will report to the utility’s finance department effective April 1. Perny has previously been in charge of that section.


As Weis notes in the memo, the claims and collections department “handled 103 claims filed against (Austin Energy) for alleged (Austin Energy) damage to property or vehicles or for power reliability issues” in FY2011. Weis further reminds the team that “the utility has filed more claims against more  than 1,800 individuals primarily for damage to (Austin Energy) power poles and street lights, assessing more than $5 million in damages” over the past five years.


Weis made no comment about how the legal move or the change in claims and collections might affect operations at Austin Energy. However, Council Member Bill Spelman said that he was “flummoxed” by the situation. “I don’t understand why this is a good idea. Nobody told us this was even happening … I still haven’t heard official word about it,” he said. “I’d really like to know what occasioned this move and how this is going to result in better service.”

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