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Spelman still optimistic despite challenges of 2012

Friday, January 4, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Council Member Bill Spelman had a rough year. It started with an electoral challenge from six primary opponents. It ended with a charter amendment that guarantees that he – along with five other sitting Council Members – will not be able to run for their respective Council seats again as a new Austin political era begins.


Along the way, Spelman fought on the front lines during a feisty, tedious, and absolutely necessary rate increase for Austin Energy. He was forced – even as he opposed the project – to sign off on $15 million more for Water Treatment Plant 4. And in August, Spelman was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor.


Spelman’s health issues kept him sidelined for roughly a month – a fact that makes their effect on his psyche somewhat disproportionate. “The first week in August, I was convinced I had six months to live,” he says. “And then I woke up. And it turns out, I got pancreatic cancer, but it’s not the kind that kills you in six months.


“And, I said, ‘Having gone through that week and come out the other side if somebody’s unhappy with me, I have some context to put that in now. I don’t need to make quite as many decisions as I used to make because it’s going to make people happy,” Spelman continued.


For the record, Spelman’s policy aide Heidi Gerbracht notes that this was for the better. “His staff feels (this is) exactly the right outcome,” she says.


As for the rest of it, Austin Energy comes to Spelman’s mind first. He points to recent positive bond ratings for the utility. “The argument could very well have been, ‘Why did it take them 18 years to raise electric rates?’” Spelman says. “And although they look at the 18 years, they also realize that when we really needed to raise them, we did what we needed to do.”


Out-of-town ratepayers challenged the rate increase. The Public Utility Commission will hear the case. For his part, Spelman believes that the commission will uphold the city’s action.


Spelman and his colleagues seem set for another Austin Energy debate sometime this year. This one will be over how the utility is governed – and whether an independent board might better serve ratepayers.


On that last point, Spelman seems inclined to stick with some version of the City Council as the utility’s governing entity. However, he suggested that he might like to see this come in the form of a formally separate board – set up like the city’s entity that includes representatives of out-of-city ratepayers.


As part of the November general election, city voters approved a measure that remakes the Austin City Council. By 2015, the dais will hold 10 geographically elected members and one at-large Mayor.


Spelman saw positives in the move. But he also suggested that local interest groups will have to continue to hold elected officials responsible for the city as a whole, and not simply for the issues that surface in one district.


“If (the Real Estate Council of Austin), the Sierra Club, and the (Austin Neighborhoods Council) recognize that this is a big city and though our interests may be different, we’ve got to look at the whole city, and continue to do city-wide forums (and) continue to ask city-wide questions…then I think we will have accomplished our objective: People are going to have to pay attention to city-wide issues to get elected,” Spelman offered.


“If that just drops off the table, and Sierra Club and (the Real Estate Council) stop asking those questions, and rely on the neighborhood groups to make their own decisions, then we might end up with ward politics,” he continued. “But I think there are a lot of people out there who are sufficiently concerned about ward politics, and sufficiently understand the need to make city-wide decisions that they’re still going to be in there asking those questions, publicizing those results, and it’s going to be a right of passage for a lot of those very local candidates to have something to say on behalf of those other parts of town, and the city as a whole.”


Voters also approved a move of city elections from May to November. Spelman channeled positivity here as well. “In a way it improves the prospects for a very personal campaign” from prospective Council Members, he suggested.


The past year also saw the city approve four key economic incentives deals. Spelman singles out the city’s package with plastics manufacturer U.S. Farathane. “Farathane was actually the best one,” he says. “(It’s) a beautiful case because we’re actually doing what the incentives are really good for, which is helping who are hard to employ get jobs.”


However, Spelman also worries that the work of a Council committee impaneled to address the city’s economic incentives program might eliminate another deal with a company like Farathane. “There’s a couple of things in the incentives that would have weeded out Farathane, and, generally, would have weeded out a lot of smaller deals,” Spelman said.

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