Council Watch: Money on the Table
Council Members Daryl Slusher and Will Wynn and Mayor Kirk Watson took what's been widely perceived as a swipe at Council Member Beverly Griffith during Thursday's council meeting, with a proposal that would require that a detailed cost analysis be attached to every council item before it is voted on. "This seems like a real practical, common-sense, good-government thing to me," Slusher said. True enough, as it goes -- in fact, it's more or less the way the system works now, though it's never been formalized before. But among all the talk of common sense and good government, Slusher threw in a specific jab at the $120 million in park bonds that Griffith was pushing during the bond elections last fall. (Later, Griffith called the bond vote a "curious example" for Slusher to use, given that the cost -- $120 million -- was on the council's agenda when the item was heard. "It was no secret how much those bonds were going to cost," Griffith said.)
And, without making any digs at anyone in particular, Watson suggested that the proposed policy might cut down on council members "playing politics" with the council agenda.
Griffith, who was apparently blindsided by the proposal, expressed concern that, by requiring the notes on every item before it could go on the agenda, the rule could limit council members' access to their own agenda. "We must be sure we can put anything on the agenda that's important so we can start the discussion that [right to a public hearing and discussion] should be inviolate," Griffith said. Nonetheless, the item -- directing the city manager to come back with a proposal within 30 days -- passed on a 5-2 vote, with Griffith and Danny Thomas voting nay.
The council got a brief reprieve from one sticky issue Thursday, as a vote was pulled from the agenda that would have decided the extent to which city-owned electric utility Austin Energy can lock up its books in preparation for a deregulated utility market. (The vote was postponed "indefinitely" to give AE and city staff time to answer council members' preliminary questions -- and to give Council Member Will Wynn time to recover from pneumonia -- but it could be back on the agenda as early as Feb. 22.)
Under the provisions of the 76th Texas Legislature's Senate Bill 7, municipally owned utilities have the right to designate certain business transactions as "competitive matters" which they can keep out of the public domain. Passed in an otherwise brutally anti-municipal legislative session, SB 7 recognized a major disadvantage facing public utilities in an open market: The business transactions of city utilities are considered largely a matter of public record, while the affairs of private corporations are available only to their stockholders. Municipal utilities say keeping their business information a matter of public record hinders their ability to compete on the open market.
But, given Austin's fetish for public input and open-process government, it's not surprising that Austin Energy's call for secrecy is raising a major flap. A focus group of consumer advocates, industry consultants, and community members pulled together by the Electric Utility Commission last summer was supposed to quell the early protests that caused a similar vote to be pulled from the council's agenda last May. As a conciliatory measure, though, the focus group fell short, coming up with a new list of competitive matters that differed only nominally from the list offered by AE in August.
A three-member minority of the committee called for nearly half of the items to be kept in the realm of public scrutiny. In an attachment to the majority report, the EUC protested that the information the minority report requests is "precisely the type of competitively sensitive information that is regularly protected by utilities in regulatory proceedings."
"Nobody's smart enough to know beforehand exactly how [competitors] can put this piece together and that piece together and come up with something that can be used against us," says Ed Clark, AE's communications director. "We're not trying to withhold information here. We're trying to protect the customer."
But according to the drafters of the minority report, loss of public oversight could be damaging to both AE and its customers. "As a result of the high public input that [AE] has always had, we have one of the more environmentally sensitive electric utilities around," says Kathy Mitchell, an ACLU representative who worked on the commission. "All of the input brings up safety issues, it brings up environmental issues, things that might otherwise never come up. I don't think we have any guarantee that [AE] will continue to be as good as we have been without that input." Mitchell says she's also concerned that closing the books on large parts of Austin Energy's business operations will choke public debate when the time rolls around for the council to vote on whether or not to deregulate.
So far, no one on the council has expressed a clear preference for either position, although there seems to be a definite if unsurprising tilt towards the majority position. "It's a pretty reasonable document," says one council insider. "There are still some questions to be answered, and we're looking at it very hard."
There's good news and bad news for Austin's air quality. Good news first: Austin leads the 44 U.S. members of the Cities for Climate Protection program, brainchild of the International Council for Local Environmental Issues, in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Now the bad news: Austin's air quality gains haven't exactly been outstanding. In 1995, ICLEI was urging cities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% of 1990 levels by 2010. That works out to about nine million tons in Travis County. Austin set a less ambitious goal of 4.5 million, but -- though city Sustainability Officer Fred Blood admits that measuring emissions reductions isn't an exact science -- it seems we haven't met that goal either. According to Blood, Austin has a net reduction of about 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide in the past six years. Put another way, we'd have to reduce CO2 by about 100,000 tons a year for the next 10 years to get back on track.
This Week in Council
Two items from Danny Thomas (one co-sponsored by Daryl Slusher) would give a leg up to city efforts at revitalizing the neighborhood around East 11th Street. Items would extend fee waivers to developments in the area and reimburse the Austin Revitalization Authority for costs of water and wastewater improvements that support redevelopment of East 11th.