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New proposals on table as Council begins negotiations on AE panel

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 by Michael Kanin

With Austin City Council members set this morning to begin the parlay phase of their debate over Austin Energy governance, In Fact Daily has learned that Council Members Bill Spelman and Chris Riley are working on proposals that could result in a stronger independent board than what was pitched 12 days ago by Council Member Laura Morrison.


Spelman told In Fact Daily Monday afternoon that this latest attempt at a governing pitch would be very close to one recommended by the Electric Utility Commission last week. If that holds, the proposals may create a board that would have wide-ranging authority – but would also check that power with a Council review option that would allow Council members to bring board decisions back for their final approval.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell said that he would be open to something along the lines of what Spelman and Riley will pitch. Leffingwell added that it sounds as though the idea is similar to the one initially proposed by himself and Spelman.


Though Council members will likely discuss the issue this morning – and their Thursday agenda includes a vote on the matter – no final decision is expected on a new governance model for Austin Energy until at least May. Council Member Mike Martinez will miss this week’s Council meeting while he is in New York on city business.


The governance issue remains a fraught and divisive problem. Proponents argue that an independent board stocked with knowledgeable and professional members would result in better informed and more efficient running of the utility. Opponents insist that an independent board would be ultimately unaccountable to Austin ratepayers, and could result in a deviation from hard-won, green-leaning utility policies.


Lurking in the background is the question of who should supervise the utility’s general manager. That role is currently reserved for the City Manager. However, a majority of Council members appear to support a change to that arrangement.


At the heart of the issue is utility oversight – and what portions of utility operations would be reviewed by what body. After years of prodding from the Electric Utility Commission – and what some have called delaying on the part of City Management – Spelman and Mayor Lee Leffingwell brought forward a resolution to create an independent electric utility board on April 11. However, Morrison, concerned that she and her colleagues would cede too much power to the new body, reversed a key operative portion of that ordinance.


Under Morrison’s proposal the Council would reserve all utility oversight for itself, with the exception of a handful of specific, minor powers. Though most of her colleagues signed-on to the notion that Council members should specifically dictate what powers the new board holds, there was no immediate consensus about what those should be. (See In Fact Daily, April 12)


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole has been working with Spelman on his latest proposal. However, she still appears to favor Morrison’s version of proceedings, with Council dictating which powers go where.


Meanwhile, last Monday, a clearly frustrated Electric Utility Commission issued a very strongly worded resolution. In it, commissioners called on Council members to create a strong independent board. The document calls on Council to give the independent board general authority over all matters relating to Austin Energy, so the Independent Board may effectively oversee (the utility).”


The commission’s recommendation for the ordinance allows for a 30-day Council review period for any board decision. (See In Fact Daily, April 16.) Look for some form of this review to be included in the ideas pitched by Riley and Spelman.

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