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All Council members to serve on committee to watch Austin Energy

Tuesday, May 28, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members switched tracks late Thursday night and sent the contentious issue of Austin Energy oversight to a Council committee that will, as it turns out, include all of them. Though the broad scope assigned to the body by the ordinance that passed unanimously appears to cover every aspect of the utility’s complicated dealings, Council members took a calculated step to remove the specific term governance from the document.


That move came on a motion from Council Member Kathie Tovo. “I would propose we change it from ‘the governance of the utility’ to ‘mission, scope and responsibilities of relevant advisory committees,” she said. “I believe that will allow us to talk about the future of the Electric Utility Commission the Resource Management Commission, and whether one or two should be reconstituted as an electric utility board and be given additional responsibilities or additional scope.”


She continued. “I think that language does not invoke the kind of concerns that the word ‘governance’ does but gets at the same thing.”


Council Member Mike Martinez agreed. “I think it’s an excellent suggestion; it was one that I certainly wanted us to address in our first committee meeting,” he said. “I think you are exactly right: The term governance is what’s giving everyone heartburn about anything that we are doing. So, it’s going to be removed.”


Governance, of course, is the issue that has plagued not only Council’s recent Austin Energy deliberations, but presented some utility watchdogs and Electric Utility Commissioners with philosophical fodder for roughly two decades.


Council Member Chris Riley took a minute Thursday to illustrate that point. He also directly addressed concerns the creation of the committee would prevent public discourse. “It is not an end-run. There is no backdoor for the City Council. The only backdoor that we have to be worried about is that if we don’t have an effective means of overseeing the utility, then decisions regarding the utility are going to be made behind closed doors by staff in a way that is not transparent at all,” he said. “That is the default. That is what happens when we don’t have an effective way of carrying out oversight of the utility.”


The end of Riley’s statement appears to be a reference to city management — and the fact that Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis continues to report to City Manager Marc Ott. State Senator and former Mayor Kirk Watson tried but failed to pass legislation clarifying that Council would have the authority to create an independent governing body for the utility. Although Council had the authority to create a board that would handle matters such as contracts and bonds, they needed legislative permission to transfer administrative authority – such as hiring and firing the general manager –to an independent board.


This version of the debate found Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman vocally pressing their colleagues to create a powerful independent Austin Energy board — one that would, theoretically be free from the political pressures that dragged a necessary rate increase out over the better part of 2012 and empanel a professional group that would remove some of the grainy detail of electric utility management from Council’s purview.


But Council members Tovo and Laura Morrison, pushed along by critics of such a plan like consumer advocates Tom “Smitty” Smith and Karen Hadden, urged their colleagues to keep control over even many of the smaller details of utility management, a step, they argued, that would keep Austin Energy accountable to the general public.


Riley pitched what looked, at least earlier last week, to be a compromise: Create a Council committee to deal with utility issues. First up would be governance.


However, the creation of the committee – coupled  with the fact that Leffingwell abandoned his support for what, at that point, had been a proposal for a board much weakened by motions that stripped the bulk of its power – appeared to confuse at least two Council members (and the Austin American-Statesman). Morrison, who insisted Tuesday that she wanted no part of the Austin Energy committee, retracted that statement Thursday morning as it became clear that the committee’s first task would be to address utility oversight.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who also wanted no part of the committee Tuesday, told her colleagues Thursday that she would serve. Thus, the monthly meeting of the Council’s Austin Energy Committee – a body that could be expanded to include the work of the Austin Water Utility – turned into a regular Council work session dedicated solely to utility matters.


Despite calling for such a body repeatedly during the most recent edition of the governance debate, many advocates remained skeptical of Council motives Thursday night. Their concerns, it appeared, all centered around governance – and the idea that a change in the current regime wouldn’t be dropped with the creation of the committee.


There was also plenty in the way of implication from activists that Council had somehow rigged Thursday’s schedule to push the Austin Energy governance discussion late in to the night. Leffingwell took the rare step of acknowledging their concerns – blaming Tovo and Morrison for the timing. “I did not put it last,” he said. “This was requested by two Council members to be the last item on the agenda for the seven o’clock time certain.”


Council Member Mike Martinez also chimed in on that fact. “That’s the last time certain of the day, so every other item must be taken up before you get to that last time certain,” he said.

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