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Larry Weis
Larry Weis (Photo by Nora Ankrum)

Representatives from local environmental and low-income advocacy groups got more than they bargained for last week after requesting a larger role in the hiring process of Austin Energy's next general manager. Concerned that the one public forum planned wouldn't provide sufficient time for getting to know the two candidates – Larry Weis and David Wright, both from Califor­nia – the activists requested a second public meeting. Instead, the city gave them the chance to interview each candidate for up to 90 minutes and to brief city staff on their thoughts afterward. The city arranged a similar meeting for representatives from the business community later in the day (July 1), on top of three other interviews originally planned – two for city officials (one with executives, another with AE staff) and a third with relevant board and commission members – bringing the grand, grueling total to five. Strangely lacking, however, from all that additional public involvement was, well, much additional public involvement.

The original letter requesting the extra meeting had included the suggestion that the city televise it on Channel 6. Instead, as city spokeswoman Samantha Park explained, the stakeholders were essentially folded into the formal interview process, meaning that the proceedings would be held behind closed doors, sans media and council members. When asked if such an arrangement might let the candidates give two conflicting answers to two different stakeholder groups with neither being the wiser, Council Mem­ber Chris Riley said that was a "cause for concern." More concerned, however, were particular activists who'd hoped for a seat at the table but were turned away, creating tension that made for a strange scene in the otherwise sleepy third-floor corridors of City Hall that Thursday morning.

David Wright
David Wright

When the handful of panel participants showed up with uninvited guests – most notably veteran energy activist Paul Rob­bins, enlisted to keep minutes, and Ryan Rittenhouse of Public Citizen, wielding a tape recorder – the meeting was stalled for some 20 minutes while officials considered what to do with them. As City Manager Marc Ott stood near the balcony overlooking the two floors below, talking in hushed tones with another staffer, a security guard paced the corridor, looking askance at any unfamiliar figure to emerge from the elevator. Meanwhile Weis, patiently awaiting the start of his second long day of interviews, stood at the hallway windows looking out toward Lady Bird Lake, appearing oddly stress-free by contrast. Eventually city staff told the interlopers, once and for all, to leave. (Later that morning, reports Robbins, as he sat at a table in the City Hall lobby, Weis joined him for an amiable chat.)

Despite the rocky start, the participating panelists said they were pleased with the event. "It was educational and informative," said Carol Biedrzycki of the Texas Rate­pay­ers' Organization to Save Energy, a nonprofit that works primarily on statewide issues related to "affordable electricity and a healthy environment." Biedrzycki said she'd hoped to determine the candidates' "sensitivity to the need to make energy affordable," their stance on assistance programs, their perspective on the "classic rates versus environment issue," and their take on AE's generation plan recommendations for "low-income weatherization," which she supports. She declined to share her conclusions about the candidates publicly. "I feel like this is the city manager's decision to make," she said, adding, "I hope that he takes our evaluations and comments very seriously."

Other participants were more forthcoming, with Weis emerging as the favorite among environmental groups. "It seemed to me after talking to both of them that Larry Weis had a really strong command of the issues that I think matter to Austin," said Colin Meehan of Environmental Defense Fund. Cary Ferchill of Public Citizen agreed: "You have a panoply of issues that are facing the next general manager of this utility, and Wright in particular did not seem like a guy who was likely to be able to grab that bull and wrestle it to the ground." Neither candidate, said Ferchill, is ideal, primarily because both lack experience in Texas. "I think that our culture and political environment ... is pretty different from California," he said, pointing to California's relatively aggressive standards for renewable energy as a prime example. "I'd sure as hell like to have 33% mandated renewables in Texas – we have nothing of the like. Quite frankly when we try to do more than a token amount of renewables, we have people running around pulling their hair out at the Capitol and at the [Public Utility Commis­sion] and all over the place."

Ferchill says the learning curve for those who lack experience in that environment will be too steep given the urgency of the challenges facing AE, most notably AE's generation plan, upcoming changes in how the state grid operates, and business model changes necessary for keeping the utility – and the city – fiscally sound. The city should be looking within the state, if not within AE, for the ideal candidate, said Fer­chill. At this point, with the city manager considering visits to both candidates' hometowns in California, the city appears to be looking primarily in one direction: West.


Unlike the panel interviews, the June 30 public forum was televised; watch it at www.cityofaustin.org/channel6.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Energy, Larry Weis, David Wright, Cary Ferchill, Carol Biedrzycki, Texas Ratepayers' Organization to Save Energy, Paul Robbins, Marc Ott

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