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Citizens panel to consider AE finalists

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Eight more pairs of eyes will be scrutinizing the four finalists for general manager of Austin Energy in meetings scheduled for today. City Council members Leslie Pool and Sheri Gallo along with Mayor Steve Adler chose representatives from the community to serve on the Austin Energy community panel, with the approval of City Manager Marc Ott, Pool said Monday.

Ultimately, Ott is the decision-maker on hiring Austin Energy’s general manager and has said that he wants to be able to announce the name by mid-May. It is not clear whether participation by the citizens group will have any impact on the timetable, but Pool expects a report from them about their impressions.

Members of the environmental community have expressed their lack of enthusiasm for the four finalists. Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen said Monday he is looking for “somebody who’s a visionary, somebody who would understand both how to keep the lights on but also prepare the utility for the future, someone who has demonstrated a commitment to (combating) climate change and making sure there’s enough water.” He said he was particularly concerned with water wasted at Austin Energy’s generating plants, especially the Fayette coal plant.

Pool pushed her colleagues to put the panel together, first with a proposed resolution on Thursday and then on Friday night with a proposal stating that she and Adler had created a list of community members who would be participating in the round-robin interview that staff had scheduled for today.

Among those talking to the four finalists will be Mark Zion, retired from the Texas Public Power Association, representing residential customers; Patti Winstanley from Aztec Promotional Group representing small commercial customers; John Sutton from the Coalition for Clean, Affordable, Reliable Energy representing large commercial and industrial customers; Richard Halpin, representing low-income customers and churches; environmental advocates Joep Meijer and Kaiba White; Cyrus Reed of the Sierra Club and Karen Hadden, chair of the Electric Utility Commission. Meijer and White are members of the Joint Sustainability Committee, and White is also an energy policy analyst at Public Citizen.

Pool told the Austin Monitor that representatives from the Human Resources Department will be on hand during the interviews to take notes and to make sure that community members do not veer off topic.

The four finalists are: Deborah L. Kimberly, vice president of Customer Energy Solutions at Austin Energy; Terrance P. Naulty, general manager and CEO of the Owensboro Municipal Utilities in Owensboro, Kentucky; Jacqueline A. Sargent, general manager and CEO of the Platte River Power Authority in Fort Collins, Colorado; and James N. West, assistant general manager of the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) in Everett, Washington.

“We had wanted to do a citizens panel from the very beginning,” Pool said. “When (former General Manager) Larry Weis left, people in the community said we need to do a citizens panel – we did it last time.”

In the meantime, more than 100 people filled the Shudde Fath meeting room at Austin Energy last night to hear from the candidates. Many in attendance were taking notes and filling out evaluation forms offered by city staff, and they were also able to weigh in on strengths and weaknesses and offer any other comments on each of the candidates.

Smith told the Monitor on Monday, “None of these candidates meet all of the criteria that have been developed by the consumer and environmental community. We’re frankly underwhelmed, and if you want the best candidate for this job, you’re going to have to pay more. … When you look around, the public utilities in San Antonio, Pedernales, and Bluebonnet –all of their executives make more than a half million dollars.”

Weis, the former general manager, was paid $315,000 a year and reportedly took the job at Seattle Light for $340,000 a year. At the time of his departure from Austin, Weis made it clear that he was not happy with the decision-making process at Austin Energy. He also said he was returning to Seattle because that was where he felt most at home – not because of an increased salary.

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