The Austin Chronicle

The Flickering Search for an AE Chief

By Nora Ankrum, July 2, 2010, News

A lot has happened since the city announced its short list of candidates for Austin Ener­gy's new general manager, though very little of it has to do with the actual finalists, three California guys – utility execs Ronald Davis, Larry Weis, and David Wright.

First, there was grumbling over who wasn't on the list, most notably AE's vice president of distributed energy services, Karl Rábago, heavily favored by the environmental community (see "AE Finalists: California Dreamin'," June 25). Then, recently retired GM Roger Duncan leapt into the fray to urge consideration of his former boss Juan Garza, who preceded Duncan as AE's general manager and was suddenly available to take the job back, having been freshly fired from the same position at the Pedernales Electric Coop­er­ative. Then a bunch of environmental groups and low-income advocates petitioned the city manager to give them some alone time with the Californians, saying that Wed­nesday night's planned community forum would be "too limited to permit us to have a meaningful conversation with the candidates."

It would seem that after a months-long, nationwide candidate search, City Manager Marc Ott was not feeling the love. It probably didn't help that on Monday, Davis announced he was dropping out of the contest. One outsider down, two to go.

The decision over AE's new chief is, as Council Member Bill Spelman recently put it, "critically important ... to the long-term fiscal health of the city." If the wrong guy gets the job, it would have implications beyond utility bills and the Climate Protection Plan – it would jeopardize AE's general fund transfer, through which the city gets a substantial chunk of its income. The weight of the decision is enough to put someone a little "on edge," suggested Spelman when asked about the recent tension. It could explain Duncan's 11th-hour request, copied to council members, imploring Ott to "alter the selection process" to include Garza; it could also explain Ott's brusque written response defending the candidate list, canceling a planned meeting with Duncan, and concluding with, "I am very disappointed."

The two have since made amends. "Marc and I talked by phone, and we, in essence, apologized to each other," said Duncan. "I still think that [Garza] would be a very strong candidate. ... I felt like that was a unique circumstance that I was making Marc aware of, but ... I'm very respectful of the hiring process, having gone through it many times myself."

As it turns out, Duncan wasn't the first person to suggest giving Garza a chance. Just before the finalist list was announced, said Spelman, he "made a pitch" to Ott to consider the former PEC chief: "He's done this before, he's a national figure, he's very well regarded in the public power industry, and he seemed like a natural person to at least consider." According to Human Resources Direc­tor Mark Washington, the city hasn't closed the door on the idea. "Our intent is to hire the best person for the job," he said. "Our search efforts will continue until we have done exactly that." (At press time, the Chronicle had not been able to reach Garza for comment.)

On Monday, the city announced that Davis' withdrawal had created an opportunity for "additional vetting by stakeholders" during the remaining two candidates' midweek visit. The city scheduled two panel interviews on Thursday (today), one with the business community and another with the advocates who had requested extra face time the week before, among them Matt Johnson of Public Citizen. "There's an opportunity here for the city manager to observe how these candidates interact with the stakeholders that will be working with them on a weekly basis," said Johnson, who expressed disappointment that the event would not air on Channel 6 for a broader audience. He also said, "I want to reserve as much judgment as I can for the interview because so many of the requirements and desires of the job description are things you can't read in a résumé."

. Unlike some past forums that have been "kind of catch-as-catch-can as to whether you get your questions answered," Spel­man said, the panel interviews would be different: "People will be able to see: Do [the candidates] have grace under pressure? How are they answering the questions before this group, before that group? I think people will be able to develop a more finely tuned judgment." (However, the panels are open to the invited groups only – not the general public.)

As to what he hopes to see in the ideal candidate, Spelman said: "I'm persuaded they know renewables are important, they know the costs are important, they know they're in a complicated regulatory environment – you can get all that by reading the newspaper." (He's right: See "A Glimpse at AE's GM Candidates.") The critical question, said Spelman, is this: "Are you prepared to deal with conflicting interests, conflicting concerns, in real time, and keep the lights on?"

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