Monday, May 9, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Some AE panelists reject all manager finalists

Three of eight members of an informal citizen advisory group that was created by Mayor Steve Adler and City Council members Leslie Pool and Sheri Gallo to weigh in on finalists for the Austin Energy general manager job have indicated that they would choose Jacqueline Sargent of the Platte River Power Authority in Fort Collins, Colorado, while five panelists have said that they think the city should reopen the selection process.

According to a report from the panel, whose members met with the four finalists on May 2, five of the eight panelists believe that “it is advisable to have stronger candidates and for the search to go further.” Three of those five believe that both Sargent and James West of the Snohomish County Public Utility District in Everett, Washington, should be considered for the job if the selection process were to be reopened, while the two others believe that of the finalists, only West should be considered.

The eight citizens on the panel were Mark Zion, retired from the Texas Public Power Association, representing residential customers; Patti Winstanley of Aztec Promotions, representing small commercial customers; John Sutton of CCARE, representing large commercial and industrial customers; Richard Halpin, representing low-income customers and churches; and environmental advocates Joep Meijer, Kaiba White, Cyrus Reed and Karen Hadden. Meijer and White are members of the Joint Sustainability Committee, and White is also an energy policy analyst at Public Citizen. Reed is the conservation director for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, and Hadden is chair of the Electric Utility Commission.

Another six citizens who attended the May 2 meeting as members of the general public to observe the finalists completed score sheets that gave equal ratings to Sargent and to Austin Energy’s Vice President of Customer Energy Solutions, Deborah Kimberly. West and the fourth candidate, Terrance P. Naulty, general manager and CEO of the Owensboro Municipal Utilities in Owensboro, Kentucky, scored significantly lower with this group.

Environmentalist and former Austin Energy employee Mark Kapner provided a copy of the compiled scores, which were based on criteria such as “demonstrated leadership in leading a utility toward a 100 percent renewable generation portfolio, commitment to Austin’s climate goals, commitment to electrification of transportation” and “experience and empathy in working with low-income customers.”

He said that Public Citizen and the Sierra Club had worked on the criteria for about a month and that these were the same considerations that the Council-selected panel used in rating the four candidates. Kapner added that he had hoped for a broader response, however, and did not want to put too much emphasis on the findings of such a small group.

At the same time, environmental and consumer advocate Paul Robbins criticized the selection of Council’s citizen panel, saying, “While it was an informal advisory panel, how its members were selected is not transparent, and its makeup did not reflect the diverse nature of the city we live in. Moreover, the polarized nature of the panel was also disappointing. Two of these eight people actually work together as part of the same office group. Four of them carry a view of the electric utility industry that I have found, in nearly 40 years of involvement in this field, to be impractical and, in some ways, shallow.”

Robbins also said that some members of the group were not supposed to vote on their recommendations for general manager, while another member arrived late to the meeting.

When the Austin Monitor raised these issues with Adler, he sent the following comment via email: “The community panel was not set up as a voting or decision-making body so there were no rules about voting. There was no expectation that the community participants would take a vote or would reach any conclusions as a group.

“Certainly, there was no prohibition against any individual panelist participating in a vote with any one or more other panelists or otherwise communicating their observations or opinions in any form they wished. Some of the panelists were designated as active participants and others as observers so as to allow the panel to have a meaningful opportunity to interact with the candidates. But there were no hard and fast rules preventing the group in the moment to act as they felt appropriate and constructive.”

Adler later called the Monitor to say, “The point was to give stakeholders in the community additional access to the candidates.” He said it is now up to the stakeholders to contact their Council members or the city manager if they wish to comment, adding that the group was not an official panel or task force of the city and that it had needed to be assembled quickly.

He stressed that the selection of Austin Energy’s general manager is City Manager Marc Ott’s decision, not Council’s. When asked if he had reached a conclusion about whether there is a need to reopen the selection process, Adler said he had not.

Ott has said that he wants to be able to announce the name of the new Austin Energy general manager by mid-May.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

City Manager Marc Ott: Ott was hired by Council members in 2008 and served in that position until his 2016 departure.

T. Paul Robbins: Paul Robbins is a longtime environmental activist.

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