A Victory for Activists?
Council may retain oversight of Austin Energy
May 17, 2013BY AMY SMITH
What a difference three months of citizen hell-raising makes.
Back in February, a Council majority was poised to hand over its decision-making authority of Austin Energy to an unelected governing board. At the same time, a bill was wending its way through the Legislature to allow Council to short-circuit voters in this process. Both measures drew strong opposition from a large group of consumer and environmental activists, as well as regular citizens.
Now it appears that most Council members have backed away from the wildly unpopular idea of surrendering control of the city's largest asset to an unaccountable panel of professionals. And this week, the bill giving Council the okay to amend the city charter without voter approval (aka the Austin-bashing bill endorsed by Council) was still stalled in committee as the Legislature's clock winds down to the session's end on May 27.
As things stand now, Council is set to vote May 23 on a revised proposed ordinance in which Council would retain its powers over the utility while taking a more conservative approach to delegating authority to a new board — a board whose members would be selected by Council. Also next week, Council Members Chris Riley, Laura Morrison, and Mike Martinez will introduce a resolution to create a new "Council Committee on Austin Energy" to oversee utility matters. Riley's proposal for a separate Council committee — an idea Morrison initially floated in a May 5 Statesman op-ed — would establish City Council's control over the makeup of the new board. The original proposal would have put a professional headhunter in charge of lining up potential candidates for what would have been paid positions. Tovo is a safe bet to vote for the Riley/Morrison/Martinez proposals, while Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman have signaled a willingness to meet them somewhere in between. Leffingwell has already stated his opposition to the revisions.
Nothing Like the Original
The latest plan reverses the initial proposal sponsored by Leffingwell, Spelman, and Cole, which underwent a fair number of amendments at its first reading. Their plan called for granting sovereign authority to an independent panel, while still ensuring openness and transparency. Proponents of that scenario included all but one member of the Electric Utility Commission — a Council advisory group — and a coalition of large commercial and industrial businesses, which receive discounted electric rates as part of a special deal that expires in 2015. By that time, Council will be under a 10-1 district governance structure, and the big energy users like Seton and Samsung would feel more comfortable negotiating a new deal with an independent electric board rather than a brand new Council.
Riley, the lead sponsor of the new plan, laid out his position this way: "In my view, the current proposal provides for more transparency and more accountability than the original draft, and it offers the potential of providing oversight that's far more — effective than our current system. Even if we can't reach agreement on all the details of the utility's governance," he continued, "I'm hopeful that we can at least agree on forming a standing Council committee to keep working out those details. I'm also hopeful about forming a new board to govern the utility, and I think a Council committee could play an instrumental role in helping us get a new board up and — running."
Morrison says the new proposals take into account public concerns about possible unintended consequences of relinquishing all Council authority with a single vote. The additional time given to what was originally deemed an "emergency," she said, "allowed us to come up with a much more refined approach to address the issues we wanted to address and avoid the pitfalls and potential negative consequences. Yes, it can be a challenge and frustrating sometimes to go through a months-long dialogue, but it's a process that's working. I think it's an example of good governance."
Proud of Our Utility
Opponents who had organized against the governance overhaul applauded Council's willingness to listen and respond to their concerns. "There's still some things that need to be done to improve [the revised proposal], but it's certainly come a long, long way," said Karen Hadden, an energy activist and the only member of the Electric Utility Commission who opposes a governance switch. Opponents' biggest concern now is that the newly created utility board will be the result of an ordinance, rather than a voter-approved charter amendment. "Once you create a board of this kind through ordinance, you can easily change it through ordinance," Hadden said. "We don't want to see a new Council coming in and deciding to delegate huge authority to this unelected board."
Three months of listening to various stakeholders convinced Riley that Council should slow down. He went from being a likely yes vote on the governance makeover to a lead sponsor of the revised, more palatable proposal. "Over the past several months, in the wake of the settlement of the rate case appeal, we've been hearing from more and more Austinites who are proud of our utility and protective of the public's control of it," he explained in an email. "I'm proud of it too, and I've come to realize that we need to move very cautiously on any measures that could affect the public's ability to influence the utility's course."