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Naked City

Council Watch: Energy Crisis?

By Emily Pyle, March 23, 2001, News

Taking advantage of a provision of last session's electric dereg bill, SB 7, which allows municipally owned utilities to prep for deregulation by keeping certain business transactions confidential, the council will vote this Thursday on a full roster of items Austin Energy wants out of the public domain. The list of more than 50 items includes pricing strategies, market studies, and customer information. If the council approves the measure, records that AE refused to release would only be available only through the intervention of the Texas Attorney General's office, which could conceivably force the utility to release the information.

Predictably, in a city suffering from what one observer once called "terminal democracy," the motion to close the books on Austin Energy is causing a bit of a stir. AE called a halt to the proceedings once already, postponing a council hearing last May so that a committee of industry experts and consumer advocates could negotiate a fresh list.

The official slate of so-called competitive matters didn't change much in the interim, but three members of the Electric Utility Commission -- included in the discussions as "community members" -- have gone rogue. The three -- activist Paul Robbins, Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, and Kathy Mitchell of the Central Texas ACLU -- submitted a minority report calling for a list of competitive matters reduced by almost half, with supplier information, sales strategies, and other such matters out in the open. The minority report also calls on the city to hire a full-time public auditor who would keep an eye on competitive matters and present his or her findings to the public in an annual report. The public needs some access to the information, the report says, so it can give informed input when the time comes for the council to vote on whether or not to deregulate. (The Texas market opens January 1, 2002, but the final decision on whether to open Austin Energy to competition rests with the council.)

In this case, it's likely the council will play it safe and side with the majority, perhaps looking to beleaguered municipally owned utilities like Seattle's City Light, floundering in a newly deregulated market, as a cautionary example.

Under a related agenda item, the council would make a solemn promise not to opt into deregulation until conditions ensure "that a decision to opt in to deregulation will be in the best interests of all classes of customers," and that electricity "will continue to be delivered in a reliable manner."

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