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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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Senator seeks AG’s opinion on efforts to name AE governing board
State Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) has asked for an opinion from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott about whether there are any limitations in either state or City of Austin law that could prohibit the Austin City Council from creating a fully independent governing board for Austin Energy.
In a letter dated June 24 and received by Abbott’s office on June 26, Carona also suggests city legal staff is incorrect in its finding that the board would have to report to Austin City Manager Marc Ott.
Both topics have been the subject of heated debate at the local and state levels. State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) introduced a bill that would have clarified Council members’ ability to create an independent governing body for the utility. Though the bill received majority support from Council members, it failed to clear committee in time for a legislative vote.
Carona told In Fact Daily that he worked with Watson’s office in requesting Abbott’s opinion. Committee chairs on behalf of other members of their committee frequently seek Attorney General opinions. Carona chairs the Senate’s Business and Commerce Committee. Watson is a committee member.
Watson’s bill represented one of the least dramatic options available to the state legislature with regard to Austin Energy with the threat of deregulation continuing to hang over the municipally owned utility.
Carona’s letter is expansive, blunt, and deeply critical of the situation. In it, he cites concerns heard by the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce “that City Council members are overly influenced by Austin voters and not as concerned with the larger geographic area served by Austin Energy…(and a) lack of adequate training and information necessary to oversee an entity of the size and complexity of Austin Energy.”
That point, Carona continues, “led to a concern that decisions involving Austin Energy are overly driven by political influence and are made outside of the public by the employees or the City Manager.”
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro-Tem Sheryl Cole, and Council Member Bill Spelman sought to create a fully independent board for Austin Energy earlier this year. That effort was heartily endorsed by the city’s Electric Utility Commission – three members of which later resigned in frustration.
Council Member Chris Riley saw the effort as a means to improve transparency via a process that would take decisions out of City Manager Marc Ott’s purview, and bring them out for a public airing through the new body. In the end, Riley pushed for a Council subcommittee to deal solely with Austin Energy issues, which now includes all seven Council members. That body is set to meet August 13.
Carona asked Abbott to rule on three basic questions: Whether the state’s local government code allows Austin City Council members “to transition to a board of director governance, distinct from the Austin City Council, and to allow out-of-city customer representation on the board”; whether the Austin City Charter “pose(s) a limitation on the powers or responsibilities that may be delegated to a board of directors that includes out-of-city customer representation established by an ordinance adopted by the Austin City Council”; and “if the city charter does present limitations to the powers that may be delegated to a board of directors, does state law provide an option for amending the city charter with respect to the oversight or operation of Austin Energy that would allow all customers to have a voice in the election?”
Carona does not ask for ruling on the question of whether the board (and by extension, Austin Energy’s General Manager) has to report to Ott. Rather, he appears to leave the question settled with his statement that city legal is wrong in their affirmation of that fact.
The Attorney General opinion is expected within the normal time frame, which can be up to 180 days.
In Fact Daily received an emailed statement from Carona about the letter on Friday afternoon. “In 2012, the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce held a hearing on an interim charge relating to governance of municipally-owned utilities,” he writes. “During that hearing, it became clear that there were a number of issues and concerns specifically related to Austin Energy that needed to be addressed. Senator Kirk Watson filed Senate Bill 410 during the 2013 Legislative Session to do that, but the bill failed to pass. In working with his office in order to resolve some of the outstanding issues, I requested an Attorney General’s opinion.”
Watson’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
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