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Council to meet as Austin Energy Advisory Committee on August 13

Tuesday, July 9, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members will hold their first work session as the Austin Energy Advisory Committee on August 13. There, they will take up a hefty load, including a discussion of the utility’s FY2014 budget, as well as line extension and fuel charge policies that Council members believe are related to the city’s upcoming budget.


When convened, the meeting will mark a major change in utility governance. It leaves Council members with immediate, advisory-level oversight of the utility in spite of the continuing presence of the city’s Electric Utility Commission.


Whether the situation will remain as is won’t be decided at the first meeting of the group, which includes all Council members. Indeed, any further discussion of utility governance will remain off the table until at least September.


Meanwhile, two new Electric Utility commissioners are slated to take their seats Monday. The pair – Clay Butler and Varun Rai – replace Philip Schmandt and Michael Webber. Schmandt, Webber, and Steve Smaha all resigned from the commission at its June meeting amid clear frustration about Council receptiveness to commission efforts.


Resource Management Commissioner Chris Herbert also left that body – another with oversight of Austin Energy – with similar concerns.


The EUC spots are filled just in time for the commission’s July 15 meeting, where cmmissioners are set to prioritize a list of issues for Council’s Austin Energy committee work at that meeting.


Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis laid out a list of proposed meeting topics in a late June memo to Mayor and Council. There he suggests a schedule that extends through May 2014. The most immediate issues, according to Weis’ timeline,would be budgetary – to track with the city’s budget schedule – and an extended, likely closed discussion about the utility’s hedging policy.


“The items identified are timely issues with significant public policy import as well as being high level policy issues appropriate to what is my understanding of the purview of the (Council committee),” Weis wrote. “The ordering is based first on the budget timeline, as requested, and follows along a logical sequence of connected issues.” 


Weis did not specifically mention the topic of governance in his preliminary outline. However, the unsettled nature of the document was clear from its title, which Weis left as “Strawman Schedule of Priority Items.”


As part of work session discussion on June 26, Council debated other possibilities for an early Austin Energy work session slot. These included the future role of the Electric Utility Commission – a body that, all of a sudden, lacks a clear mission.


Council Member Bill Spelman urged his colleagues to take things slow. “I don’t want to put too many items on the agenda so that we don’t have any opportunity to understand what we are talking about,” he said.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell agreed with Spelman.


Council Member Kathie Tovo also called for an early discussion of the utility’s disconnection policy – something that has raised concerns with consumer advocates. Tovo further suggested that she or any of her colleagues could bring forward any issue they thought called for more immediate action via the regular Items from Council portion of the agenda.


For his part, Weis told In Fact Daily that accusations leveled by Herbert in her resignation letter that he and city management do not listen to the RMC are “not true at all.”


“The commissions are advisory on the items that we are taking to Council,” Weis continued. “Whether they were fully looked at or not, there are bylaws for those commissions that are pretty substantial…As in all large public utilities, you have ultimately the policy makers  — which is the Mayor and Council. Then you have these – I call them citizens’ advisory commissions – they are commissions, they are boards, they are committees. It’s very common in the industry to have those because you need a place for the public to go and hash…issues out.”


Weis further said that, with regard to commission concerns, “there’s been some miscommunication, I believe, in what they expect to have before them to talk about.”


He said that he is “respectful of the commissions” and notes that “we will continue to work with them.” However, Weis added “fundamentally, their job is to be advising on issues that we take to Council.”


As for the new Council committee, Weis reads a split in Austin Energy business. “In my mind, what it comes down to the policy issues, they are really for the Council to grapple with,” he says. “If they ask us to go take that back to the EUC, and ask ‘em what they think (we will.) The real question is…do we start the issue with the EUC or do you start the issue (with Council).”

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