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Council members mull compromise to form Austin Energy committee

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Tuesday appeared to back away from the imminent creation of a new governing body for Austin Energy. Instead, the issue is likely ticketed for a new, four-member Council Austin Energy committee that may eventually expand its scope to include the city’s water and wastewater utility.


The committee was first formally proposed by Council Member Chris Riley as part of an attempt to broker a compromise over the stalled discussion of a new governing model for Austin Energy. The committee would be designed to serve as a go-between for the Council and a potential future new style of board. It could eventually assign some level of sovereignty to the new body, if Council doesn’t go in that direction initially.


Except for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, each Council member has indicated some level of support for a version of the committee. With more definitive action in limbo at Council and the Texas Legislature, Riley put an item creating the committee on Thursday’s Council agenda. A bill sponsored by State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) to give the Austin Council the authority to have Austin Energy’s general manager report directly to a new board is stalled in committee.


Although he is not happy about the creation of the committee, Leffingwell Tuesday suggested that he and his colleagues should let the committee deal with hammering out the governance issue. “If we’re going to…establish a committee, obviously there’s a lot of ongoing discussion still about this whole matter. It might be wise to put further consideration of the actual ordinance on the table, create the committee, and continue that discussion (there),” he offered.


Leffingwell’s tabling suggestion produced a confusing result. Council Member Kathie Tovo pushed for a time certain of 7pm for the governance discussion. Leffingwell, who seems to prefer the idea of tabling the Council’s governance resolution, did not call for an outright postponement of the discussion. Council Member Laura Morrison then joined Tovo in a call for a 7pm time certain — thus fulfilling the required number of voices on the matter.


That means that if Council members do end up in an in-depth discussion of the current governance ordinance, it will happen at 7pm. If they don’t, the matter will be postponed. That will all be decided Thursday.


Discussion of the potential committee prompted Council members to chime in about committee membership. In his introduction of the item at Tuesday’s work session, Riley suggested that he would be interested in serving.  Tovo quickly joined him.


Leffingwell also, expressed interest – along with the idea that assignments for the utility committee should be made by Council seniority, as, he said, membership in all other committees is determined. Though Tovo – the most junior member of Council – objected to the idea, it became quickly moot as Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Morrison immediately declared that they did not want to serve on the body.


That left Council Members Bill Spelman and Mike Martinez. Spelman signed up for the job. Martinez was at home caring for sick children, according to a staff member.


The resulting committee of Riley, Tovo, Leffingwell, and Spelman would be an interesting one, should Council members sign off on it. Though he has been instrumental in recent – some would say weakening – changes to the governance ordinance, Riley appears supportive of some eventual sovereignty for the Austin Energy board. Spelman and Leffingwell are firm supporters of a powerful independent board, while Tovo is unwilling to cede much, if any, power to the new body.


Spelman and Riley each played key roles in the compromise that eventually resulted in the first rate increase for Austin Energy in 18 years. Leffingwell has stated publicly that Council members poorly addressed the issue – a key portion of his argument for an independent board. Tovo was supportive of what turned into a summer’s worth of work sessions that Council members used to arrive at their rate decision. She has used that process as an argument to support the idea that Council members can take on the hefty weight of utility decisions.


For her part, Cole continued to push the suggestion that the committee should also include the city’s water and wastewater utility. “I feel real strongly about (that part),” she told her colleagues.

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