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Austin Energy’s GM resigns to take Seattle post

Thursday, November 19, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis has given notice that he will be resigning effective Jan. 31, 2016, in order to become chief executive officer at Seattle City Light.

Weis, who is the city’s highest-paid employee, submitted his notice to City Manager Marc Ott on Wednesday. Reached for comment in Seattle, Weis told the Austin Monitor that although the position gives him a pay raise, that is not his main reason for taking it.

Weis stressed the fact that he is going home. “I grew up in the Seattle area. This is my culture,” he said. While he said he loves Austin and has made many friends here, “the timing of this opportunity was really too good to pass up.” He said he will begin his new job on Feb. 1 and expects the Seattle City Light position to be his last job before retirement, which is quite a few years down the road.

Michael Osborne, chair of the advisory Electric Utility Commission and a former Austin Energy employee, said, “Larry did a good job getting us to 35 percent,” referring to the utility’s commitment to get 35 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2020. “And he was here during a difficult time, when we were having our first rate increase in almost 20 years, and (he) managed to get us through that. I’m happy to see that he’s got a good job at Seattle City Light.”

Weis told Austin Energy employees about his resignation in a memo, saying, “(W)hat I like about my job the most here at AE is the employees and their dedication and motivation to improve and excel in their respective professions. … Together, we have fixed a lot of things, implemented a new rate structure and rates, expanded our Renewable Generation Portfolio, and brought about positive changes and a difference I feel proud to have been a part of.”

Weis’ current base salary at Austin Energy is $320,000, and he said he will be making $340,000 a year plus an 8 percent annual bonus at Seattle City Light.

Weis took the Austin Energy job five years ago, six months after the retirement of Roger Duncan. At the time he started at Austin Energy, Weis was paid $285,000 a year, and Ott was making $240,000 a year.

At the time of his appointment, the Austin Monitor (which was then named In Fact Daily) noted that the salary was considerably lower than the salaries of general managers and CEOs of other utilities, including CPS Energy in San Antonio and Pedernales Electric Cooperative, which serves Cedar Park and Leander.

Austin Energy, the eighth-largest publicly owned electric utility in the United States, currently has a budget of $1.4 billion. Utility spokesman Carlos Cordova said, “We serve 450,479 customers according to our unaudited FY 2015 ending numbers. This includes 401,556 residential customers, 48,791 commercial customers and 132 industrial customers. We surpassed 400,000 residential customers for the first time this past fiscal year as this area continues to grow.”

Even though City Council froze the transfer from Austin Energy to the city’s General Fund at $105 million in 2012, the amount the utility pays for support services has continued to grow. For the current fiscal year, the utility is funding more than $20 million for support services as well as to departments that may or may not have much to do with the utility.

Entrepreneur Steve Smaha, a former member of the Electric Utility Commission, told the Monitor he was very concerned about Austin Energy’s lack of an independent board.

“Personally, after watching the way it’s evolved and watching the lack of utility independence and all the arguments that came up against having an outside board, it’s obvious you’ve got a situation where we’ve got politicians and city managers pretending to run the utility. This makes the idea of having an independent board an absolute minimum, and then maybe they should just spin the thing out or privatize it and get it over with,” Smaha said.

The mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, has nominated Weis and will be his boss under Seattle’s strong mayor form of government. According to a press release put out by Murray’s office, “A search committee representing Seattle energy experts, environmental organizations, energy assistance non-profits and labor unions provided input during the selection process.” Weis will be replacing a former Austin city manager, Jorge Carrasco, who retired from the Seattle utility earlier this year.

Weis received a bachelor’s degree in electrical and mechanical technology at Western Washington University and started his professional utility career at the Snohomish County Public Utility District in Washington. He came to AE from the Turlock Irrigation District in Central California.

Seattle City Light is the 10th-largest public utility in the United States. There is not yet any word on Austin Energy’s next steps in hiring a new general manager.

Photo by Pelle Sten (Flickr: Austin by night) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Disclosure: Roger Duncan is Jo Clifton’s spouse.

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