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Resource Management Commission at stalemate over toxic materials resolution

Wednesday, May 4, 2022 by Willow Higgins

Resource Management commissioners recently butted heads over a proposed resolution directing Austin Energy staff to facilitate a working group tasked with brainstorming how to dissuade builders from using toxic materials. The resolution ultimately did not pass, ending in a 4-4 tie vote, with one abstention.

Ultimately there was some confusion over what exactly the resolution aimed to do – whether to improve Austin Energy’s Green Building point system, which ranks buildings by how sustainable they are, or take on the larger project of ensuring that Austin buildings are made with non-toxic, eco-friendly materials. But the conversation mostly centered on whether or not the RMC needed to better engage and collaborate with Austin Energy staff about the responsibility of the working group before putting them to the task.

The failed resolution referenced the dangerous qualities of building materials that are commonly used in multifamily and tract-home construction, disproportionately exposing lower- and middle-income people and people of color to health risks. “Modern energy-efficient buildings with less ventilation” exacerbate the dangerous health impacts, the resolution reads. It resolved that the working group, which should be composed of industry professionals, staff from Austin Energy, environmental and health experts, tenant advocates and members of the RMC, forward recommendations to the commission by Aug. 1.

While the commission did vote on and approve some amendments to language in the resolution, Commission Chair Jonathan Blackburn suggested from the jump that the resolution be tabled until commissioners had discussions with Austin Energy about how the project should be pursued.

“My preference would be that the sponsors take this back, take the feedback back that we’ve gotten tonight, meet with the Green Building staff who ultimately will be in charge of implementing any of these changes, and get their feedback on this and their buy-in, because really if we want this to be effectively implemented and not just a resolution for the record, the staff buy-in is crucial,” Blackburn said.

But some members of the commission, especially those who co-sponsored the resolution, thought otherwise. They argued that the commission has discussed this effort at several other meetings and the resolution was on the agenda for the meeting, where Austin Energy staff members are typically present.

“I believe in leading,” Commissioner Louis Stone said. “There are times when you can collaborate and you can go back to somebody, but you need to be able to say sometimes, ‘This is the direction we want to head, and we need you to get on with us.’ Austin Energy is well aware of what this commission has been talking about now for a couple of months – this is not a surprise to them in any form. They can always come back and say, ‘We don’t think we could meet an August 1 deadline,’ and then we can work with them on that as appropriate.”

After much discussion, Richard Genece, an Austin Energy vice president who was at the meeting, eventually made a comment, asking for the staff to have time to convene and consider the resolution as it is proposed.

He recalled having discussed the project at a previous meeting that Blackburn convened, which included RMC members and Austin Energy staff, but hasn’t heard anything about it since. 

“We’re sitting here literally just saying, ‘Why is the step never taken to engage Austin Energy staff to make what RMC wants to do more productive?’ That would be my question,” Genece said. “The meetings are an opportunity to engage, but not in real time. We would like an opportunity to actually consider and co-develop and co-create things, not at the point where resolutions are actually being drafted on the spot. … This is the first time that we’re seeing what is being proposed as a resolution.”

After the vote was concluded, Commissioner Tom “Smitty” Smith urged his colleagues to have better communication with each other.

“I would note that the phone works both ways and there has become this sort of dominant attitude on the part of this commission and Austin Energy staff that don’t communicate with each other,” Smith said. “And it ain’t no big deal to pick up the phone. You know who each other are. Austin Energy, if you had some problems with this, a call to the sponsors could have avoided another meeting where we have to deal with this and a lot of disappointment on both sides. And the sponsors of this resolution, the same goes to you. This is a waste of our time.”

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