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Another city board member resigns over disagreement with Council

Monday, June 24, 2013 by Michael Kanin

In a strongly worded letter to Council Member Kathie Tovo, Resource Management Commissioner Chris Herbert resigned on June 17. Herbert’s is the fourth departure in a week from a body that helps govern the city’s utilities.


Herbert’s resignation and the circumstances around it open another window into what appears to be mounting frustration on the part of a slew of commissioners about their roles in city government. It came the same day as three Electric Utility Commissioners abruptly – and unprompted by a Council member – announced their departure from that volunteer body.


Tovo asked for Herbert’s resignation. In an email to In Fact Daily, Tovo said that she is “realigning this commission appointment to reflect my priorities as a Council member.”


She was gracious about Herbert’s service. “As a several-term Resource Management Commissioner, Chris Herbert has used her considerable expertise and experience to help shape and enhance the City’s commitment to energy efficiency, clean energy, and so many other critical issues. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for Chris Herbert and her contribution to the Resource Management Commission and to the City of Austin at large,” Tovo wrote.


In a brief interview with In Fact Daily, Herbert noted that she had served for an extended period of time, and suggested the reason that her resignation was receiving any sort of attention was thanks largely to its coinciding with the resignations of Electric Utility Commissioners Philip Schmandt, Steve Smaha, and Michael Webber.


However, Herbert’s letter appears to echo concerns expressed by Schmandt, Smaha, and Webber in interviews with In Fact Daily last week. “After serving in this capacity for almost eight years, I encourage your office and the Council at large to better communicate with the boards and commissions,” Herbert writes. 


“These boards and commissions are, and should be, the first line of citizen interaction for proposed changes, additions, and elimination of activities. The monthly public meetings and generally more focused discussions are a perfect platform for in depth consideration and collaborative solutions among staff and citizen stakeholders.  These collaborative solutions will lead to resolutions submitted to the council that have broad support and require less staff time, lengthy task force assignments, and council time to resolve.”


She continues. “I believe a shift that has occurred in this recent year or so, where the Council, the City Manager or Austin Energy General Manager are responding to the various special interest groups on various issues, without involving boards and commissions. Furthermore, recent resolutions from Council, do not consider the work currently being performed by the boards and commissions collaboratively with staff, and therefore are redundant or conflicting with that work. This has generated additional work for the Council and staff, and takes away the very function and advisory mission of the boards and commissions. It also undermines the commission ability to solicit and secure stakeholder input as the stakeholders now by-pass the commissions, choosing to go straight to council or staff. The RMC has experienced significantly lower attendance of consumers and stakeholders in the past two years, and as a result, we have been less able to resolve issues or recommend resolutions for Council consideration. Better coordination of issues between the council members and the various commissions would surely enhance the process for all involved.”


Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis disputes Herbert’s characterization.


Though not specifically tied to the issue, that paragraph appears to reference Tovo’s attempt to cap rent increases for tenants whose landlords received rebates for energy efficiency upgrades. Council eventually settled on a study to determine whether there was a connection between rent hikes and the rebates (See In Fact Daily, May 24).


Resource Management Commission Chair Leo Dielmann detailed Tovo’s approach to that resolution, one that ultimately proved problematic for his commission. Dielmann says that Tovo – despite the fact that the issue fell directly within the Resource Management Commission’s purview – went around the organization and brought the issue to the Electric Utility Commission. “It’s a little troubling to us that she would go to the EUC and not the RMC,” he says, later noting that the situation “rankled a lot of people.”


Dielmann notes that Austin Energy is “in the business of providing energy and power to the citizens of Austin,” and that collecting information about rent is not an ideal situation to put the organization in. 


Further, Dielmann says that Tovo has submitted resolutions to the commission without consulting it – and he notes that this is her prerogative. However, the approach can lead to conflict. “We’re getting resolutions with very little input or advice from the commission, so we’ve gotten a little bit at odds,” he says. “We’ve tried to advise the Council member that there are ongoing discussions with staff that are directly related to (her efforts).”


As for Herbert’s resignation, Dielmann says that Herbert met with Tovo in the wake of the Austin Energy rental cap issue and that after that meeting Herbert informed him of her resignation. “She asked for my input and I think she was in a little bit of an untenable situation,” he says.


When reached for comment about Dielmann’s statements, Tovo told In Fact Daily that she had nothing to add to her email.


For his part, Dielmann said that he has not had similar issues with the Council Member that appointed him, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole. He notes that Cole has been “very supportive.”

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