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After years of service, Slusher retires from city

Monday, January 6, 2020 by Jo Clifton

After nine years on City Council, about 18 months at Austin Energy and more than 12 years as Austin Water’s assistant director for environmental affairs and conservation, Daryl Slusher hung up his city spurs last week, retiring on Dec. 31. As he contemplates his future, he says he wants to start writing again, though he’s not sure what form that will take.

Before Slusher was elected to Council, he and his friend, Daryl Janes, presided over what a Texas Monthly writer called “an ornery seat-of-the-pants political newsletter called the Daryl Herald” from 1985-88. After Janes left for a higher-paying job, Slusher carried on alone with a publication called the Austin Mirror. He also worked as a deputy constable to bring in a few more bucks.

He became politics editor of The Austin Chronicle in early 1989 and stayed until 1994, when he ran for mayor against Bruce Todd. Slusher explained that he never intended to run for mayor, but after he complained on talk radio that no one was competing against Todd, a host of people urged him to take the plunge himself.

Todd won that race in a close runoff, but having gotten a taste of actually being involved in politics instead of just writing about it, Slusher ran for Council and won a seat in 1996. He retired from the position in 2005. Slusher told the Austin Monitor that throughout his political and journalism careers he has focused on the environment, social equity and financial responsibility.

Not long after Slusher stepped down from Council, Austin Energy’s Roger Duncan asked him to help with the national Plug In Partners campaign to push Detroit automakers to start making plug-in electric vehicles. About 18 months later, then-City Manager Toby Futrell decided she needed Slusher at Austin Water.

Reflecting on the contributions Slusher made to Austin Water, the utility’s director, Greg Meszaros, said Slusher has been “a colleague walking step for step with me for the last 12-plus years.” Meszaros came to Austin in 2007 as director of the utility about the same time Futrell named Slusher to the new assistant director position.

“Daryl was an overall leader for Austin Water in all of our environmental programs,” Meszaros told the Monitor. “When Toby promoted him over as assistant director I think it was to establish a stronger commitment at the utility to protecting the environment, and I think Daryl was really successful in that. Daryl always took the long view of things and not just because he was an assistant director. He really did it by building influence and trust and great relationships. I think he changed Austin Water fundamentally from being a utility that looked at protecting the environment as something it had to do to something it wants to do. I think the whole culture at the utility over the dozen years that Daryl served in his leadership role has changed fundamentally – you see it all across the utility programs,” Meszaros said.

One of Slusher’s duties was oversight of the utility’s conservation programs. Austin Water proudly announced in mid-December that its customers had achieved a record low for water usage per capita in 2019, dating back to when the city started keeping records more than 20 years ago. Among the 1 million people Austin Water currently serves, both in the city and surrounding areas, usage has dropped to an average of 120 gallons per person per day, the utility reported last month. Usage peaked in 2006, the year before Slusher came to the utility, at about 190 gallons per person per day.

While his boss gives him credit for the success of the program, Slusher says Austinites got on board with water conservation pretty quickly. He described the program as “a partnership with the citizens that couldn’t have happened without people embracing conservation.”

Meszaros said the new low water use number is a result of years of effort by the utility, not just in conservation, but other programs led by Slusher. Slusher was also in charge of the utility’s wildlands, including the Water Quality Protection Lands and Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. During Slusher’s tenure, the city made some strategic purchases of open space, including in the Barton Springs watershed. Slusher said it is important to educate newcomers to Austin on the importance of preserving our environmentally sensitive wildlands.

Meszaros noted that Slusher was the utility’s leader on the climate change front as well as legislative programs. One of the most important ways Slusher protected the utility’s interests was through his strong support of the Highland Lakes effluent discharge ban. “We’re really blessed in that our water supply is so pristine,” Meszaros said. “And one of the key protections in that is the Highland Lakes discharge ban. Daryl was just a warrior defending that.”

Meszaros also praised Slusher for nurturing employees and developing leaders for the future, as well as his skill in reaching out to people. “He could build bridges and strengthen relationships.”

He estimated that the utility did $2 billion worth of infrastructure improvements during Slusher’s tenure and that Slusher always worked to make sure that the improvements were done in a way that protected the environment. He said Slusher always gave good advice and had a great understanding of the city and its issues.

The water utility currently has a number of senior level vacancies and is anticipating more in the coming year. Meszaros said he will take a while to decide how to fill those positions.

Disclosure: Roger Duncan is married to Austin Monitor reporter Jo Clifton, the author of this article.

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