Council moves forward with independent board for Austin Energy
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The Austin City Council is moving forward with plans to create an independent board to oversee Austin Energy, rather than the current, council-appointed, volunteer commission.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell says Austin is the largest city without an independent board of directors overseeing its power company. Leffingwell has spearheaded the plans behind this board, and the mayor would serve as chair, alongside six hired experts.
Some members of the Austin City Council expressed doubt that the board is necessary, though. At Thursday night’s council meeting, Council Member Kathie Tovo said she does not believe there is evidence that the current commission is not doing its job.
Despite some reservations, Tovo and the rest of the Council voted unanimously to pass a resolution directing City Manager Marc Ott to outline which rules would govern this independent board.
There are critics who believe the city is moving recklessly fast, though. Consumer advocates like Tom Smith say flaws with the system can be fixed rather than overhauled.
“When you have this so-called independent board of experts, they are going to be following the trends as opposed to really looking at the future and looking at what the cheapest energies are going to be 20 years out," he said.
Smith said the Council fell into the same trap with the biomass-fueled Nacogdoches Power plant in East Texas. Council members were promised the $2.3 billion plant would generate enough energy for roughly 70,000 homes in Austin. However, Austin Energy officials say the energy costs more than they expected, and decided this year not to purchase any power from the plant. Smith fears the independent board would prove to be worse, though.
“We are afraid what would happen in an independent board,” Smith said. “Some deals got made in the back room at the last hours--and were made in Executive Session--that the people on the outside did not know about."
He said citizens at least get to voice their concerns to the current governing bodies. But Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole -- who supports the plan -- disagrees with Smith's notion of an insulated board. She believes the independent board of directors could bring experience and the expertise to Austin Energy.
The City Manager’s office has one month to write up the new rules and present them to the Council. In the meantime, Tom Smith said he will be starting a petition to force a special charter election. That may stall the mayor's plans for the independent board for three years, since the city’s charter was just amended last November.