EUC Trio to Council: Take This Volunteer Job and Shove It
Three commissioners quit, citing Council and city management's lack of support and cooperation
Those of you hoping for more drama in the long-running Austin Energy saga got your wish Monday night when three of the seven sitting Electric Utility Commissioner members up and quit from the dais. The trio – Phillip Schmandt, Stephen Smaha, and Michael Webber (appointees of Council Members Chris Riley, Sheryl Cole, and Bill Spelman, respectively) – had been visibly disappointed with both Council and city management over the past few months. Their resignations punctuated what has been a remarkably difficult time for the utility.
Commission Chair Bernie Bernfeld referred to the trio more than once as the three musketeers, a nod to their frequent work together. Recently, those efforts found them part of a solid majority calling on Council members to create a strong, independent governing board for the utility. Last month, Schmandt and Smaha teamed up on a plateful of resolutions over such issues as the shuttering of the Fayette coal power plant, utility hedging policies, and – believe it or not – the commissioners' right to retreat to the comforts of executive session, where, informed by sensitive information, they would be able to better weigh utility issues.
In remarks to online city hall newsletter In Fact Daily, Schmandt and Webber each indicated that their concerns for the utility went unheeded. "[I]t's not even that we're not contributing in a positive way. It feels like sometimes we're making things worse, or what we consider to be good direction is completely ignored," said Webber.
Schmandt was more direct. "I do think there are some fundamental flaws in the system. It really is broken," he offered, citing general fund transfers to pay for unrelated city expenses. "It's a chain of command issue that when the city manager tells staff to include general expenses [and to] pick up those expenses on behalf of Austin Energy, staff can't say no, and that's just a real problem that has to get fixed."
Smaha was the only one of the three to unload verbally from the dais. "I'm actually thankful to staff for making my experience overall quite a good one," he began before turning dark. "On occasion over the last six years I've felt like the EUC has been able to have some impact on either the utility or the political process, but I don't feel that has been happening quite enough lately that it would warrant staying here."
Now three new commissioners will have to find their way through a complicated mess of utility policy and politics. It is doubtful that any of the drama surrounding the utility will be resolved by the time they take their seats.