Somebody Needs a Nap

Profit vs. Conservation

Maybe City Manager Garza was a little wound up by the return to the council's work session agenda of a topic he finds touchy -- his surprise reorganization of our electric utility, in which he brought the city's Conservation Department, long revered for its independence, under the authority of Austin Energy. The item at hand was the approval of Austin Energy's budget -- or rather dispersal of the approximate $3.6 million budget within the utility -- which would effectively ratify Garza's reorganization of the utility into four departments, with vice presidents reporting directly to him. Gus Garcia temporarily put the brakes on the approval, declaring his doubt that the utility was sufficiently committed to the principles of conservation.

"I can't find a comfort level that ... we have a commitment over the long haul to conservation in the utility. They are a profit-making organization," he said, where historically very little emphasis has been placed on conservation. He said that in the past, the utility has believed it was spending too much, instead of too little, on conservation activities.

Garcia feared that the pressures of impending competition could endanger the conservation function: "The utility is going to receive an enormous amount of pressure from the bond houses," he said. "The manager is going to feel compelled to come to the council and say, 'One of the things I want to cut is conservation.'"

Without direction from the council, Garcia said, the profit-driven enterprise could not be expected to commit to pursuing ways to conserve energy, and he added an amendment requiring the council to draw up such a policy, including a commitment not to compete with local conservation businesses. Garza said Austin Energy would welcome such direction from the council.

Councilmember Jackie Goodman threatened to vote against the proposal, because she had expected the day's item to be a public hearing instead of an action item. "Fear of change is really, really powerful. Given the history not only of the utility ... it needs to have a fairly clear organizational protection before all of that goes into effect." Though she ultimately voted for the total budget, Goodman said it was a mistake "to go ahead with this first without those safeguards and without the accountability ... though I believe in [the commitment to conservation by] the city manager and Roger [Duncan, the city's conservation director], you two are not going to stay in these particular places forever."

Actually, it has seemed lately that the city manager might stay in his Austin Energy post forever. Garza assumed leadership of the utility on an interim basis when he undertook the reorganization, but the end of his tenure seems nowhere in sight. Though the council approved hiring an executive search firm for a new Austin Energy executive director, no mention was made of the timetable for finding a successor to former AE director Milton Lee, who has since taken a job with the Lower Colorado River Authority.


Gearing Up for the Lege

The next day at Thursday's council meeting, we got a peek at the policy goals that all the recently approved lobbying money will be spent pursuing when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Divided into major and minor priorities, the document contained few surprises, listing the city's authority to regulate development and annexation numbers one and two, respectively. Electric deregulation also made the list, as well as water rights and something euphemistically called "urban security," which would "enhance the punishment for certain Class C misdemeanor repeat offenders," including public intoxication.

Among the council's few amendments to the agenda was the addition of an item, proposed by Councilmember Bill Spelman, recommending that the state allow proportional representation for City Council elections for cities of Austin's size. Proportional representation, in which citizens may cast more than one vote in a single election, is already allowed for cities with a population of less than 200,000. Spelman noted that there were various alternatives the city could pursue in implementing such a policy, including eliminating the six designated seats on council, and creating one large pool of candidates, of whom the top six vote getters would win seats. Austin Representative Glen Maxey, who serves on the House's Charter Revision Committee, reportedly supports this concept.

The city's priorities also include monitoring any new "metro government" law that would allow the integration of various levels of local government -- certain city and county services, for example -- to eliminate duplication of effort and promote efficiency. A metro government provision is included in the revised Texas Constitution recently proposed by Representative Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, and Senator Bill Ratliff, R-Mt. Pleasant. If approved by the Legislature, the streamlined constitution would go before Texas voters for approval.


Palmer Lease Approved

The council also approved the terms of a 50-year lease of Palmer Auditorium (at a rate of $1 per year) to the ARTS Center Stage group that's committed to raise $50 million for Palmer's renovation. Palmer's new proprietors take possession of the building in July of 2001 -- to allow time for the new civic center to be completed so current Palmer users are not displaced -- and the new facility's opening is targeted for the fall of 2003.


Side Dishes

That was far from everything on the council's smorgasbord of municipal public policy last week. Councilmembers also:

  • Denied a request to rename Maple Avenue for the Reverend O. T. Arnold, 40-year pastor of the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church.
  • Approved the name "Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex" for the much-anticipated Central City Entertainment Center.
  • Approved the 70-year, $102,000/year lease with the Post Company to build 250 apartments at the city-owned Poleyard property (east of the Electric Lounge).
  • Authorized the $7 million St. John's community center approved in the November bond package.
  • Accepted $307,000 in funding from the governor's office to establish the Juvenile Diversion Center for youth who have committed Class C criminal offenses. The Urban League of Austin will oversee the program with assistance from the Austin Police Department. Ideally, the center will work to "get the attention" of youth and parents at the first sign of delinquent behavior.
  • Approved continued funding to promote tourism and convention sales in Asian ($200,000 annually), African-American, and Hispanic ($279,000 each annually) markets.


This Week in Council: The council will not meet this week, or the week after that, or the week after that -- but check this space over the holidays for council-related news, including a dose of who's-running-for-the-council-in-'99 gossip. City Council officially rings in its new year when it reconvenes on January 7.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Seaholm Power Plant, Leslie Pool, Recommissioning Committee, City Council, Ken Altes, City Manager, Jesus Garza, Palmer Auditorium, Jenny Staff.

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