Point Austin: Season of Discontent
Botching a high-profile project is not the best way to ask for a raise
This holiday season has not been the hap-hap-happiest time of the year at Austin Energy. Less than a week after taking a beating from City Council for the inexplicable forfeit of $400,000 in federal funds to weatherize low-income apartments, a humbled AE General Manager Larry Weis returned to City Hall Wednesday morning with hat in hand.
Weis was there with some of his top lieutenants to brief council on a proposed rate increase that has already drawn widespread opposition from environmental activists, consumer groups, and advocates for low-income residents. Getting called on the carpet by council the week before you're scheduled to justify an unpopular rate hike is not the best way to get out in front of an issue. By the looks of Wednesday's Channel 6 broadcast, the briefing came off without the scorn and discontent that had marked the Dec. 8 council meeting. But the good will on display between Austin Energy and council on Wednesday could serve as an interesting political test for the mayor and three sitting council members who are running for re-election next year.
To quickly summarize last week's weatherization meltdown, Weis and Karl Rábago, AE's vice president for distributed energy services, were summoned to the podium to explain how the city missed a deadline that caused the loss of $400,000 in federal stimulus dollars that were supposed to pay for weatherizing 54 needy households at the Mount Carmel Village apartments in East Austin. Council was slated to bless a total of $600,000 in funds at its Nov. 10 meeting, but City Manager Marc Ott pulled the item from the agenda to try to settle some questions that minority contractors had raised, based largely on what turned out to be a lack of clear information in the agenda's backup materials. Ott moved the agenda item to the Dec. 8 council meeting, but by then, the clock had run out and the city was only eligible to receive $200,000. (For more background, see "Point Austin: Storm Surge," Dec. 2, and "Austin Energy's Weatherization Fail," Newsdesk blog, Dec. 9.)
Fall Guy or Turf War?
Everybody agrees that a colossal disconnect between a handful of bureaucrats caused the city to lose the funding. But trying to identify an actual fall guy has become a sport in some circles and a matter of moral principle in others. The list of suspects points to Ott, Weis, Rábago, or Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza. Perhaps all of them are to blame.
Environmental activist Robin Rather surmised on her Facebook page last week that it "looks like ACM Rudy Garza callously dropped the ball on this. Inexcusable." The post generated responses from 15 people, including Rábago's wife, who provided their own commentary on the curious turn of events. Community activist and Hispanic contractor representative Paul Saldaña chose to drop the hammer on Rábago, who for the last two years has had a rocky relationship with minority contractors on the weatherization project.
Others point to the longstanding tension between AE and the City Manager's Office that spilled over into public view during last week's council grilling. "This looks a lot to me like a turf war," said Carol Biedrzycki, executive director of local nonprofit Texas Ratepayers' Organization To Save Energy. Biedrzycki was among several people who testified last week on the puzzling sequence that led to the failure to snap up the stimulus dollars before the end of the year.
While Weis mentioned the possibility of AE coming up with its own funding to make good on the weatherization promise to the 54 households at Mount Carmel, it's not yet clear how AE would make that happen. Rábago – until now one of the most accessible, media-friendly officials in city government – referred my question to AE spokesman Ed Clark, who said the utility is trying to come up with a way to provide the weather work for the apartments and may have an answer next week.
Biedrzycki, whose group advocates on behalf of low-income ratepayers, is pushing for the city to deliver on its promise to the residents. "If they don't come up with some proposal for providing the $400,000, then I'm going to figure out a way to formally request that they decide," she said. As she sees it, the person responsible for botching the deal should be called out. "The most frustrating part about the City Council meeting was the emphasis on not trying to place blame," she said. "If you're not going to identify who was wrong and who was right, then why go through this process?"
Council Member Bill Spelman, who channeled boyhood hero Perry Mason while leading last week's cross-examination of Ott, Weis, Rábago, and Garza, said his aim was to try to figure out "who knew what and when did they know it?" Moreover, he continued, "And what led us to withdrawing the item, not holding a special-called meeting, not fixing this problem, and therefore losing $400,000?"
In the end, the most obvious revelation was the communication breakdown. "There was a clear disconnect between Karl Rábago and his people – who were very aware that we needed to move very, very fast if we wanted to keep the weatherization money – and the [city] manager's office, [which] was apparently not aware that we needed to move very fast." Nor were the mayor and council members, for that matter. Several noted that they would have preferred that the item had either stayed on the original Nov. 10 agenda or been slated for a special-called meeting so that they could have hashed out the concerns of minority contractors – without sacrificing $400,000.
No matter how this thing shakes out, the current signs of dissatisfaction point to the City Manager's Office, where, as Ott himself acknowledged last week, the buck stops ... at his desk. "Whether the [miscommunication] was between Rábago and the city manager or whether it was between the manager and the council," Spelman said, "the manager needs to know that we can't let this happen again."