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A Victory for Activists?

Council may retain oversight of Austin Energy

May 17, 2013

BY AMY SMITH
Austin Chronicle

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."

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a "fair use" of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use", you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Austin Energy (Again) and the President’s Visit

With Barack Obama coming to Austin, the Council agenda is slim

May 10, 2013

BY AMY SMITH
Austin Chronicle

What started as a thick City Council agenda today, May 9, has been watered down to a slimmer action plan, with a good number of items getting punted, in order to accommodate President Obama‘s specific request for the entire Council to attend his speech in Austin Thursday afternoon, which will eat up at least two hours of time otherwise spent hashing out land-use issues and so forth, including what would have been a third and final vote on the perennial East Riverside Corridor proposals.

Still scheduled for action — on second reading only — is the proposed creation of an independent board to oversee Austin Energy (Item 15). The proposed ordinance has been altered considerably since its initial introduction, with new versions having Council retaining more authority than what was laid out in the initial draft. After giving the proposal another scrub-down at its work session Tuesday (creating a Council subcommittee to keep close watch over the board), Council members appear closer to a consensus — except for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who argued that the revisions defeat the purpose of having an independent oversight board. "If we continue to water down the authority of the board," he said, we’ll end up with "basically an Electric Utility Commission with another name." The EUC is a council-appointed advisory group that makes recommendations to the Council but holds little authority.

Consumer and environmental activists have waged a months-long campaign against handing off much of Council’s decision-making powers to an unelected board, a move that would effectively amend the city charter without voter approval. State legislation carried by Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Paul Workman (replacing original House sponsor Rep. Eddie Rodriguez) would allow the charter change without an election.

Another weighty subject, this one involving Downtown development (Item 30), is also scheduled to proceed. Council Members Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman, and Kathie Tovo are introducing a resolution designed to add more teeth to the requirements for affordable housing and other community benefits outlined in the city’s density bonus program as part of the Downtown Plan. Developers seeking additional height on buildings and other variances currently manage to work around those goals and requirements by seeking zoning changes under the Central Urban Redevelopment Combined District, better known as CURE.

Proposed changes to the much-debated short-term rental ordinance (Item 70) were kicked to May 23. According to a staff review sheet, the changes would "ensure greater compliance … improve notification and enforcement," and ensure a more effective permit review process.

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a "fair use" of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use", you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Then There’s This: Surrendering Power

Council poised to give up control of utility, no matter how you feel about it

APRIL 12, 2013

BY AMY SMITH
Austin Chronicle

It’s nearly impossible to stop a speeding locomotive, but opponents of a governance shakeup at Austin Energy aren’t backing down from trying to derail the thing.

City Council is set to take initial action Thursday, April 11, on a draft ordinance that would transfer control of the city-owned power utility from the Council to an appointed "independent" board of seven members. Also on the agenda is a related resolution endorsing proposed state legislation that would let the Council amend the city charter without voter approval — a maneuver literally designed to take the "public" out of public power.

Senate Bill 410, by Sen. Kirk Watson (who has championed the idea of a governance change since last year’s controversial AE rate increase), has already cleared the Senate. A House committee hearing on Rep. Eddie Rodriguez‘s companion bill, HB 1024, is not yet on the calendar but could come up as early as next week.

Today’s Council vote on first reading (with Kathie Tovo in China on a sister-city visit) will likely pass easily, as it will on the final reading, with Tovo and Laura Morrison expected to cast the dissenting votes. Consumer activists, meanwhile, are plotting their next course of action — possibly a citizen-driven initiative to rescind such a radical step, taken at a time when the city is transitioning to a new 10-1 City Council structure, which takes effect in the November 2014 election.

Indeed, the AE governance change has galvanized a coalition of familiar (and not so familiar) faces on consumer matters, many of whom lambasted the proposal at a Tuesday press conference. Wearing stickers bearing the words "Keep the Power in OUR Hands," speaker after speaker warned of the danger of handing control of the utility to a board of industry professionals recruited with the help of a corporate headhunter, which is part of the city’s plan for moving forward on the governance transfer.

As energy activist and Electric Utility Commission member Karen Hadden pointed out, "even" the business-friendly Statesman has editorialized against Council moving so quickly to surrender control of the $3.8 billion utility without a more thorough examination.

One speaker, the Rev. Sterling Lands, pastor of Greater Calvary Bible Church, expressed concern that low-income utility programs would be compromised under new structure. Austin residents should retain the right to elect the people who control the utility, he said, "and vote them out when needed."

Members of San Antonio-based Energia Mia, which bird-dogs the city-owned CPS Energy and its independent board in that city, also warned Austin leaders against heading down the CPS path. One read a statement from former San Antonio Council Member Maria Antonietta Berriozabal. "My advice to you … is that you — the people — not give up your power," she wrote. "You will never get it back."

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that business interests are the biggest supporters of a new AE governance setup, including organizations like the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Coalition for Clean, Affordable, Reliable Energy, or CCARE, which represents AE’s commercial and industrial customers. "We believe the time for change is now," CCARE’s Roger Wood wrote in a March 29 letter to Council. "To wait a minimum of two years for a charter election will continue to put this utility at risk. The rapidly changing Texas utility market necessitates a truly independent board, without undue political influence." In other words, corporate cronyism is okay, but accountability of elected officials is out of the question. The city’s Electric Utility Commission, a virtually powerless advisory panel, has also endorsed a governance shift, as it has in several years past.

To his credit, Rodriguez, who’s carrying the Watson bill in the House, reached out to opponents of his legislation to try to understand where they’re coming from. Rodriguez is a progressive Democrat who is usually in sync with consumer and environmental activists —— but not on this issue. He met with about 20 of the opponents at a Rainey Street restaurant on Saturday and picked up the tab for the meal. The meeting over lunch became "respectfully confrontational" at times, said enviro activist Paul Robbins. The sides didn’t reach agreement. "Eddie’s attitude was sort of, ‘Why me? I’ve been good to you.’ The attitude from a lot of the attendees was: This was a matter for Austinites, and keep the state — and your bill — away from us." Robbins recalled his last words to Rodriguez: "You don’t want this Council’s karma."

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a "fair use" of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use", you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
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