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Council approves abbreviated study on Austin Energy governance

Friday, March 22, 2013 by Michael Kanin

City Council members Thursday unanimously approved a trimmed version of a study designed to give them more information about what sort of body should govern Austin Energy. The 7-0 vote came thanks to a commitment from City Manager Marc Ott to bring something to Council by April 11.


That date would coincide with the one now pinpointed for a Council discussion – and possible decision – about utility governance. As In Fact Daily reported Thursday, the final details of the arrangement will likely not be discussed until October.


At issue is whether Council members should create an independent governing board for the utility – and what responsibilities that body would hold.  Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell continued to press for a quick decision on the matter.


“My goal is to address the basic guts of the ordinance (on April 11), creating an independent board,” he said. “So, we don’t, again, as we talked about at the work session, create the perception that we’re trying to run out the clock.” (See In Fact Daily, March 21)


Council Members Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo may complicate that. Spelman suggested that he could entertain a delay until April 25 in the interest of giving Council members and the community a chance to digest a governance study. Tovo told her colleagues that she is scheduled to “lead the sister city delegation to Xishuangbanna (China).”


Tovo is scheduled to be abroad from April 8 until April 16. If her schedule holds, she would miss both a work session on April 9 and the April 11 Council meeting where Council is, as of now, expected to hold the initial vote on Austin Energy governance.


Tovo scheduled a discussion of the timeline for next Tuesday’s work session. “It’s my understanding that it’s been a practice of, when there are items of great import and there is not a full Council, to delay consideration of those items,” she said.


April 9 appears as though it will be just as important as April 11. That date could mark the first chance for Council members to look at a draft that Ott and staff are preparing of the governance resolution.


Ott told Spelman that a version of the ordinance that would create the board is still incomplete. “We have a draft – I mean, it’s a draft, it’s incomplete,” Ott said. “I don’t know necessarily how comfortable the attorneys would be about releasing it at this point.”


Spelman’s suggestion that he could entertain a delay in a governance vote came as he questioned Tovo and Morrison about the intent of their resolution. “Can either of you imagine a result of this study which would cause you to say, ‘you know, maybe this governing board thing isn’t so bad after all’?” Spelman asked.


“What I can envision is seeing that ‘wow it might really make sense for this subset of things that we do to pass the authority on for them to another body,” said Morrison.


Tovo said that her answer wasn’t all that different from Morrison’s. “My hope is that we will get some information that’s useful in terms of (discerning)…what responsibilities could be reasonably delegated to some form of a sovereign board,” she said.


After the meeting Spelman explained his take on the discussion for In Fact Daily. “The most important issue is not at what date we make a decision but that we’re not delaying for the sake of delay and that we are continuing to head toward a decision,” he said. “What I was mostly interested in – from the people who I thought were most likely to be favoring a delay for the sake of a delay – was is this actually going to help us; is this moving the ball forward or is this something that is going to add a few more weeks to (the process).”


Spelman continued. “They were thinking about this in a very different way than I had heard Council Member Morrison or Council Member Tovo talk about it. In particular I liked the way Council Member Tovo was framing this: We’re creating a sovereign board, what authority are we going to give the sovereign board?”


Ott’s office will now produce a pared-down comparative look at utilities and governance. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole worked with Tovo and Morrison to pare down the scope of the effort. “I was a late co-sponsor and I was concerned that we didn’t have unnecessary delay by asking for too much information and putting another burden on staff,” she said. “But at the same time, I thought much of the information that was being requested was necessary to make a decision.”


Spelman offered April 25 as a possible option for Council members and the community, should they need time to digest the study. However, Council members approved no formal delay.


That discussion will come Tuesday.

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