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Riley resolution passes in chaotic Council finish

Friday, August 29, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Update: An Austin Energy official told the Monitor early Friday morning that they had left Council chambers for home after Council members passed a resolution to recess the meeting until noon today.

A twisting, chaotic end to Austin City Council’s Thursday meeting resulted in fast passage of two Austin Energy-related items — one that had drawn uncharacteristically vocal opposition from the utility in recent days.

That resolution — a move, in part, to deepen restrictions on emissions from Austin Energy generation plants, and also set a goal to replace generation at Decker Creek Power Plant with 600 megawatts of solar power -passed unanimously with the two members of Council most likely to be critical of the move off the dais.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell departed after his colleagues began debating the Austin Energy resolutions. Council Member Bill Spelman left shortly before–but after Council Member Laura Morrison made clear her intent to recess the meeting–to attend to a family matter.

Both Spelman and Leffingwell departed after Council Member Laura Morrison made clear her intent to move to recess what looked to be a meeting headed for early morning in order to resume deliberations at noon Friday.

Also absent were members of Austin Energy’s staff. Though it was not immediately clear where Austin Energy executives were at the time that Council reconsidered its recess, none of the Council members present appeared to make any move to call on utility officials.

Officials had offered strong statements during the week. These included remarks made by Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis during an interview with the Monitor Tuesday. “This IFC speaks to actually acting, to actually carrying out and acting — and this is a real similar set of circumstances that got us into making a decision like the biomass facility,” Weis said before Council members’ Tuesday work session. “I’m very concerned about it.” (See Austin Monitor, Aug. 27)

The utility maintains that the Riley resolution is too costly. And, as is typical when utility costs are raised, whispers about deregulation circulated around City Hall.

Solar advocates had pushed back against Austin Energy costs concerns with their own cost estimates that appeared to make the proposal more feasible.

Utility officials would not comment Thursday. In an odd twist, frequent Austin Energy critic Paul Robbins also raised concerns about the measure. Robbins, a consumer advocate and publisher of the Austin Environmental Directory, told Council members that, though global warming is real, he could not get behind the Riley resolution.

“I think you are kidding yourself if you think the majority of Austinites are going to understand what you are doing right now,” Robbins said. “There’s going to be an awful lot of people that are going to be quite alarmed and they are going to think that you are going to raise their electric rates excessively. Y’all do what you want, but I have good reason to believe that you’re not seeing the whole picture.”

Robbins also pointed to a report from the city’s most recent Generation Task Force. He noted that the report has “numerous flaws,” adding that “many of its facts and goals were undocumented” and that the report was “in some ways trying to legislate physics.”

For his part, Riley did not appear overly concerned about the absence of Austin Energy officials. “I think we’ve heard from Austin Energy a fair bit in the last few days,” he told the Monitor after the meeting. “And there is no doubt about what their position was on (the resolution).”

Riley continued: “I do think that we still need to have some continued discussion about the work of the task force,” he added. “We haven’t had a presentation from the task force yet. I would like to see a full discussion about the task force report and there will be ample opportunity at that time to continue this discussion about how that will work going forward.”

The vote came on a motion made by Council Member Mike Martinez, offered just as the gallery began emptying. Martinez indicated his readiness to vote for the proposal as supporters of the resolution gathered in front of Council. Some supporters noted that they would not be able to make today’s continuation of Council’s meeting.

This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate order in which Council Member Bill Spelman and Mayor Lee Leffingwell left the dais.

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