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Austin Energy governing board could be two-stage ordinance

Thursday, March 21, 2013 by Michael Kanin

In Fact Daily has learned that an ordinance to create an independent governing board for Austin Energy could come in two stages: One that would create the body and another that would answer the question of the disposition of utility employees.

 

The first of the ordinances would come before Council on April 11. Then, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell tells In Fact Daily, a “transition ordinance” would come before Council members around Oct. 1. That document would deal with the details of how – and presumably whether – employees would move from the city management to direct board management.

 

The timing of that first ordinance dovetails with a date proposed by Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison for a study of utility governance. Tovo and Morrison met with Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and city executive staff Wednesday to redefine the scope of that study. At the end of that meeting Cole was apparently satisfied enough with the changes to sign-on as a co-sponsor of the resolution that would order it.

 

The question of governance once again took center stage in the discussion over the future of the utility on Tuesday. There, Tovo and Morrison defended their call for a 58-metric look at how utility governance works across the country.

 

Leffingwell was not enamored of the idea. “This is perceived by others as an attempt by this Council to run out the clock – wait for the legislature to go home and then everything will be safe for a few years,” he said at the time.

 

Council Member Bill Spelman was critical of the methodology involved. “You’ve got 58 things,” on the list, he told In Fact Daily Tuesday. “They’re going to be all across the board. Two or three of them are going to be like Austin Energy. The vast majority are going to be too big or too small – they’ve been board-bound for years, they’ve been Council-bound for years. It doesn’t look like you’re going to get anything.”

 

On Wednesday, Spelman remained skeptical about the revamped version of the study. He suggested that there are very few municipally-owned utilities that have transitioned from a Council structure to a board structure over the past 20 years for the city to compare itself to and that much of what the study might discover could lead to false conclusions.

 

He noted that just because one utility set-up had resulted in one set of circumstances does not necessarily prove that it would work out the same way in Austin. “I don’t think the study is going to be very persuasive to anybody,” Spelman said.

 

Tovo, Morrison, Cole, and city staff were able to reconfigure the resolution. In what appears to be an attempt to focus, it cuts 24 of the original 58 metrics. It also gives City Manager Marc Ott a clear deadline of the second week in April to produce the study.

 

Morrison said via email, “The new revised version is a result of working with staff to ensure all the data needed is readily accessible, so it doesn’t extend the timeline.”

 

Tovo told In Fact Daily that she believes that “a substantial amount of the information is readily available.” She noted that the study would also focus only on specific types of utilities – another change that could bring Tovo and Morrison more support when it comes time to vote on the idea today.

 

“(The new resolution) definitely addresses the concerns that we heard (Tuesday),” Tovo added.

 

Indeed, Cole seemed satisfied with the solution. “Obtaining additional information to aid in making a decision on independent governance is certainly worthwhile,” she said. “However, this effort need not result in the slowing down of our decision making process or be taken as a lack of good faith in dealing with the legislature.”

 

Leffingwell raised that possibility Tuesday. With Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) working to get Council members state authority to create the independent board, any delay could be taken as disingenuousness on the part of the city.

 

Indeed, the mid-April timeline established in the new resolution would coincide with the expected Council arrival of the first independent board ordinance. Still, even with the passage of that document, a fight could be on hand. A suggestion that Austin Energy employees, including the General Manager, should stay under the auspices of city management – one option proposed by Ott in a Monday memo – could seem counter-intuitive to Council members.

 

Either way, Leffingwell’s priority appears to remain with establishing an independent body as quickly as Council members can. “I’m hoping that this thing can move forward in a timely way so that we can keep our credibility,” he said.

 

For his part, Leffingwell suggested that the creation of the independent board is still his priority. “We may well get that study done after we address the ordinance to create the board itself,” he added.

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