Then There's This: Too Much Heartburn Over AE 'Governance'

Council appoints itself to a committee

It was still daylight when Occupy Austin members displayed Our Power signs.
It was still daylight when Occupy Austin members displayed "Our Power" signs. (Photo by John Anderson)

One o'clock in the morning isn't the best time for critical decision-making about Austin Energy governance issues, but the City Council took the bold step last week to ... maintain the status quo.

That may sound like an anticlimactic decision after nearly five months of drama over who should control the city's largest asset, but at that slap-happy hour, a 7-0 vote to re-examine the governance question was really the safest path to follow. How they arrived at that decision in the wee hours was, unfortunately, clear as mud.

Only two members – Mayor Lee Leffing­well and Council Member Bill Spelman – were fully prepared to create an independent board to manage the utility. The remaining five – each of them with an eye on either a run for mayor or another term in 2014 – decided that the wholly unpopular idea of relinquishing control of the utility merited more consideration.

Earlier last week, the mayor decided to postpone indefinitely the original proposal to grant a nonpolitical board sovereign powers over AE, but he resisted deep-sixing it altogether, even though it doesn't appear to be going anywhere. Meanwhile, Chris Riley, with Mike Martinez and Laura Morrison, moved ahead with a new proposal to create a council subcommittee to study the governance question.

When the item came up for public comment at Thursday's meeting, consumer activists expressed ambivalence about the subcommittee idea; as they saw it, it still left open the possibility of a governance shake-up that would result in a non-elected, non-accountable board riding herd over the utility.

Somewhere between midnight and 1am, Council members concluded that they should all serve on the committee (Morrison and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole both retracted previous comments that they didn't want to serve). Any discussion about governance of the utility, they decided, should be a matter for the entire Council. "There are some really good things that can come out of having a subcommittee," said Morrison. "My frustration is that we've talked about governance for the past four months, and I would hate to have this new committee just be a discussion about governance. There is so much more good work that a [committee] can do."

And since the word "governance" was, as Martinez noted, "giving everyone heartburn," it was stripped from the final language on a motion by Kathie Tovo, and replaced with new language directing the committee to determine the "mission, scope, and responsibilities" of two existing advisory committees – the Electric Utility Com­mis­sion, and the Resource Manage­ment Com­mis­sion, which provides input on renewable energy and conservation matters. "I believe that will allow us to talk about the future of the [two commissions], and whether one or two should be reconstituted as an electric utility board and be given additional responsibilities or additional scope," Tovo said.

Tovo also sought to broaden the scope of the new Council committee to include more oversight on a wide range of issues, from low-income customers, to chiller plant operations, fuel hedging, and competitive matters, effectively doing the job currently under the purview of the city manager. As Riley had already pointed out, an inquisitive Council committee would shine more light on how the utility is run, as opposed to City Manager Marc Ott and AE General Manager Larry Weis making key decisions "in a way that is not transparent at all."

Then there's the issue of the new 10-1 City Council that will be elected in 2014. Critics have questioned why a lame-duck Council would take on such a massive endeavor in the first place. That complaint is said to be one of the main reasons Sen. Kirk Watson's legislation – enabling Council to make the governance switch without a charter amendment – died in a House committee. It's not so much that the GOP-friendly State Affairs Committee actually listened to the grassroots activists who testified against the bill; in fact, committee members appeared ready to approve the bill and move it to the floor. But, according to some sources, committee members were privately swayed by some of the muckety-mucks behind the 10-1 plan.

In a press release sent out May 8 by Austinites for Geographic Repre­sent­a­tion (the group responsible for getting the 10-1 question placed on the 2012 ballot), Roger Borgelt, vice chair of the Travis County Republican Party, joined former Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and other Democrats in calling for a stop to Council's move to create a new governing board. "Whether the utility should be run by a commission or the Coun­cil should be a major topic of the new council," said Borgelt, an attorney who last year represented an appeal of AE's rate hike by out-of-town ratepayers' (resulting in reduced rates for the plaintiffs).

On that note, we should all be careful of what we wish for – but the Council last week made the right decision, thus avoiding a major shake-up that the next Council would likely undo.

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Austin Energy, City Council, governance, electric utility, Lee Leffingwell, Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison, Chris Riley, Bill Spelman, Kathie Tovo

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