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Three Electric Utility Commissioners suddenly quit panel

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Three of the City of Austin’s seven Electric Utility Commission members abruptly announced their resignations from the dais at the board’s regular meeting Monday. The trio, Commissioners Michael Webber, Steven Smaha, and Philip Schmandt – a group referred to collectively by Chair Bernie Bernfeld as the three musketeers – cited differing reasons for their respective departures.


However, a tone of frustration hung in the air both during the commission’s regular deliberations and in interviews after the meeting. Indeed, all three were concerned about the status quo with regard to the utility and its management under the direction of City Manager Marc Ott.


Governance was a major issue of contention for Smaha, Schmandt, and Webber. All three – along with all but one of their colleagues – had called for a relatively strong independent governing board to watch over Austin Energy. As the result of a muddled compromise, Council members now find themselves all appointed to a body that may serve that function but promises to be burdened by political issues and a general lack of depth of knowledge on utility issues.


“I really enjoyed the service, the opportunity, but it’s time to move on,” said Schmandt. “I do think there are some fundamental flaws in the system. It really is broken. It’s a chain of command issue that when the City Manager tells staff to include general expenses (and to) pick up those expenses on behalf of Austin Energy, staff can’t say no and that’s just a real problem that has to get fixed.”


He continued. “We’re using the most regressive way feasible to raise money for those general expenses,” he said. “Half of our ratepayers are renters and they wouldn’t be paying for those services if we had a different chain of command.”


“Serving on the Electric Utility Commission is both like an honor and an exercise in frustration,” Webber told In Fact Daily. “I think it’s like five years of honor and five years of frustration. I think you hear some of it tonight and at a lot of the other meetings, there is a sense that there are a number of issues that we have flagged for years that are getting worse not better.


Webber couched his departure as a timely act. “So it’s not even that we’re not contributing in a positive way. It feels like sometimes we’re making things worse, or what we consider to be good direction is completely ignored,” he continued.


“So there is frustration, but the frustration is not anything new. There is no discrete event. It just sort of accumulated in the sense that as time moves on our ability to positively affect things is diminishing. It’s a sign, at least for me, that my thinking about what’s best for Austin Energy is orthogonal to what the power structure thinks is best and so it’s probably time for someone else to inject their ideas in to the process.”


Smaha delivered telling remarks from the dais.


“I’m actually thankful to staff for making my experience overall quite a good one,” Smaha began. “On occasion over the last six years I’ve felt like the EUC has been able to have some impact on either the utility or the political process but I don’t feel that has been happening quite enough lately that it would warrant staying here.”


Schmandt, appointed most recently by Council Member Chris Riley, first arrived on the commission in 2006. At one point, he served as its chair. His term was set to expire in July 2014.


Webber is Council Member Bill Spelman’s appointee. He first came to the commission in March 2008. He would have left in July 2015, or possibly sooner under the 10-1 City Council.


When he heard about the resignations last night, Spelman told In Fact Daily via text, “They’ve done a great job for Austin and it will be very hard to replace their intelligence, knowledge and good judgment. But of course we need to try. We need the help.”


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole appointed Smaha. He had served since May 2007 and would have been up for reappointment in July 2015.


In May, Schmandt and Smaha proposed a host of resolutions aimed at getting some form of Council response on issues that ranged from a shuttering of the Fayette coal power plant to a return to the commission’s now apparently unused authority to meet in executive session (See In Fact Daily, May 21). When asked a week ago via email whether he’d heard back from Council about the resolutions, he told In Fact Daily that he had “heard nothing back regarding the resolutions we sent.”


Bernfeld told In Fact Daily that Webber, Schmandt, and Smaha would be missed. “The commission is often times not in agreement with each other, but that’s a healthy sign; we’re not a rubber stamp group,” Bernfeld said. “It will be a loss both personally and professionally not having their experience on there.”


However, Bernfeld stepped back from the issue. “In the scheme of things none of us are indispensible, including myself,” he continued. “We are meant to be a rotating commission. It is obviously a shock and a surprise to lose three in one night, but all three of them have served capably and for a long time.”


Webber had turned in his letter of resignation earlier in the day. Smaha and Schmandt said they will leave on July 1, before the next commission meeting.

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