If It’s Not Broken, Don’t Break It: Help Save Austin Energy!

April 3, 2013

via Burnt Orange News

Whether you’ve been here since before the Armadillo World Headquarters, or just haven’t left since SXSW last month, one thing has remained constant in Austin: we get our electrical power from a publicly owned utility, directed by our elected city council members. This saves each of us money, but more importantly it means that the bottom line is not the only line when it comes to energy generation in Austin. Profits come second to public interest at Austin Energy, so the utility can develop renewable energy, energy conservation and green building programs which lead the way for innovative and progressive communities around the world. Austin Energy is without question the most important public asset held by the city, and every city election gives us the power to put some real popular muscle behind our public interest.

Now, however, the city council is proceeding towards a policy which would remove Austin Energy from publicly accountable hands, and transfer control of the utility to an unelected, ultimately self-appointed board of directors. This policy is one which has been tried elsewhere, and failed. It is one progressives must oppose here in Austin for the sake of our leadership on issues of sustainability, and for the sake of basic democracy.

This scheme would have the Austin City Council appoint a board of "expert" directors, and thereafter the board would appoint their own successors. Absent electoral pressure, directors of the utility could chuck renewable projects, redouble investments in coal plants or nuclear power, undermine efforts to ensure electrical service to low income or other unlucky customers or otherwise make our public utility more like the private power companies who are destroying our environment and corrupting our politics around the state, and we could do NOTHING about it. This is simply unacceptable, and so this plan must be opposed.

We should be warned by the experience of progressives and environmentalists in San Antonio with CPS Energy, the public utility there. CPS is administered in the very way proposed under this plan: an unelected board of managers and "experts" makes decisions for all the ratepayers. CPS decided to increase investment in nuclear power, which activists opposed, but they were literally locked out of meetings where the decisions were made. When a $4 billion cost overrun was predicted, CPS’ unelected directors hid this information from not only the public, but also management at the utility. This information ultimately leaked to the mayor and led to a series of lawsuits, and a $400 million loss had to be written off on the backs of ratepayers. Two years ago when the same nuclear power folks were floating the idea of expanding Austin’s investment in nuclear power activists put pressure on the city council to stay away from the deal, and it went nowhere. San Antonio’s unelected board cost ratepayers no less than $400 million on an insane nuclear power deal, while Austin’s city council dropped the issue before it ever even got started. The choice ought to be an easy one.

Our mayor and others, unfortunately, are not only pursuing this bad idea, they are doing it with great haste. Council expects to have an ordinance ready on April 9, and has said they will vote on it on first reading April 11 so that it can be finally passed on April 25. They say that they need to do this in order to keep the Republican-led legislature from stripping Austin of our public utility, that their scheme is a compromise which will keep the legislature at bay. But what bill would do what they are afraid will be done? We have less than 2 months left in the session, so is this bill moving? The truth is that there is no such bill, or if there is, it isn’t going anywhere. There is no real threat of the legislature doing anything to Austin Energy this session, but elements within the city have used imaginary threats to justify hasty action to undermine public accountability at our public utility. Even if one happens to buy the idea that an unelected board is going to do a better job of representing the public interest than the city council has, why the rush? We were promised public meetings-these have been cancelled without explanation. Why is the city pushing legislation which would eliminate any chance for a charter amendment vote when this decision is made? Do they really believe that folks in Austin are incapable of understanding our own interests?

To stop this rush towards a bad policy, we need to take action. First things first, if you live in Eddie Rodriguez’s House District, call him now and ask him to reconsider his sponsorship of HB 1024. Ask him to not request a hearing for this or any other legislation which would remove the need for a charter amendment vote on these proposed changes. His number is (512) 463-0674. Then, call the two members of city council most likely to swing away from this proposal: Mike Martinez at (512) 974-2264 and Chris Riley at (512) 974-2260. If you really want to have some fun, opponents of this plan including folks from Public Citizen, SEED Coalition, Texas Campaign for the Environment, PODER and other environmental, civil rights and public interest organizations will be holding a press conference at noon, Tuesday April 9 and a demonstration at 5 PM Thursday April 11, both at City Hall. There will be food on the 11th, and everyone is welcome to come and ensure that our elected officials know: you may be term-limited, but history will not abide any scheme to rob the people of Austin of our most important resource.

Austin gets its own peculiar nationalism where we can roll our eyes at "outsiders" coming in and changing everything. We can express shock at the condos choking down on the Broken Spoke or curse the traffic on MoPac, but few of us would leave, because where would we go? The progressive spirit which makes Austin so appealing is symbolized by our public utility and the publicly accountable means by which we run it. Let’s stand up for that utility, for that accountability and for that spirit by opposing this misguided scheme. Let’s keep the power in our hands!

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