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City seeks ruling to prevent critic from seeing emails on water restrictions

Tuesday, August 7, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Questions about Austin City Manager Marc Ott’s decision to lift Stage 2 water restrictions on July 12 continue to dog city officials.


On July 16, activist and Austin Water Utility critic Paul Robbins filed a request under the Texas Public Information Act seeking any written city communications among city officials related to the decision about whether to lift the restrictions. Robbins asked for “e-mail messages, letters, and memos” from and/or to AWU Director Greg Meszaros, utility conservation director Daryl Slusher and utility water conservation division manager Drema Gross.


On July 30, the city requested an opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott about whether it could withhold some of the information covered by Robbins’ request. In the letter, Assistant City Attorney Cary Grace asked Abbott to support the city’s position that a portion of the request is protected by attorney-client privilege, and that another segment can be withheld under a State of Texas statute that protects internal policymaking deliberations.


“I was curious (about)…what kind of pressure was brought to bear and by whom to make this decision happen,” Robbins told In Fact Daily.


“All I can voice at this point are my suspicions,” he continued, saying he hoped the information he requested would help bring the picture into focus. “It was well known that Mayor Leffingwell pressured Greg Meszaros in a public forum to take off … (Stage 2 drought restrictions). I have no idea what other pressure was leveled or if other pressure was leveled.”


Though currently targeted at the recent decision to lift Stage 2 watering restrictions, Robbins’ concerns – as well as those of many in the local environmental community – extend to what they view as the water utility’s lax approach to conservation. Those worries may have been compounded when Ott acted against at least the initial position of the staff of Austin Water Utility, and replaced Stage 2 restrictions which allows only one-day-a-week outdoor watering with Stage 1’s more lenient two-day-a-week schedule.


This all continues as the Water Utility readies to incorporate major changes into the water-use regulations for the City of Austin. Last Thursday, Council members delayed any action on final approval of those restrictions, which would, for the first time, implement a series of hard lake-level triggers for a revamped system of four drought stages. Council members took no action after they received a letter signed by Robbins and other activists that called for still harsher restrictions (see In Fact Daily, Aug. 6, 2012).


Robbins and his colleagues continue to wonder about the Water Utility’s commitment to a larger goal: its stated policy to reduce average consumption to 140 gallons per day per person by 2020 from about 163 gallons per day. During debate over the new code restrictions at Thursday’s Council meeting, the utility seemed to confirm the activists’ suspicions when it was revealed that the utility’s new efforts might only get the city to 143 gallons-per-day.


Sierra Club‘s Roy Waley asked: “Why set a goal if we’re not actually going to try and put a plan in place to try and achieve that goal?”


Meszaros insisted that his organization remained strongly committed to conservation. 


“The goal of the utility is to get to 140 by 2020, and that’s the resolution of Council,” he said. Meszaros further noted that a portion of the original 140 plan was met with concerns that some measures of the effort were too “draconian.”


In working through the 140 plan with community members, such as those involved in the city’s Resource Management Commission, Meszaros said that “we’ve de-emphasized some of those heavy-handed items and are working with them to craft and cast substitutes and other ways to achieve that 140 goal.”


Indeed, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who called for the suspension of the Stage 2 restrictions, suggested that, at least in part, the city might have already reached its 140 gallon-per-day goal. “Our numbers with regard to (gallons-per-day-per-capita) are significantly skewed relative to other cities because we have certain industries that use a high amount of water,” he said.


This could be a key point. According to Leffingwell, the city’s 140-gallon goal is tied to a state goal that is being revised. When finished, the new state goal for per capita water consumption could re-calculate large industry consumption as part of the new rule, something that would allow an adjustment in the discrepancy seen by Leffingwell in current Austin water consumption numbers.

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