Austin Energy gathering data before moving to new governing board

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With ample support from residents, the Austin City Council is taking extra steps to gather data before deciding on whether or not to approve an unelected governing board for Austin Energy.

Austin Energy, the city’s municipal electric utility, is currently run by the council. A resolution passed in February directed the city manager’s office to outline an ordinance for an independent governing board of the utility that will be appointed by the council. Several Austin residents spoke out against the resolution at the Feb. 14 meeting, concerned about the accountability of a governing board unelected by citizens.

In a resolution unanimously passed by the council at the council’s March 21 meeting, city staff have been directed to perform a study looking at other municipally-owned utilities nationwide to see how Austin Energy compares in metrics such as rates, revenue, staff, efficiency and consumer satisfaction. According to the ordinance, the metrics concerning transparency and accountability are “to be determined based upon availability of information across all utilities surveyed.” 

Larry Weis, general manager of Austin Energy, said the utility is willing to put forward what it can to make the study happen.

“We operate in a very close peer industry in the public power industry and municipally-owned industry, and we have a lot of resources available to us,” Weis said at the meeting. “We will call upon those to do the very best job we can to pull the data together and be responsive.”

Austin resident Lynetta Cooper, spokeswoman for the Gray Panthers of Austin, said the study is a step in the right direction for the council’s decision.

“We wholeheartedly support this resolution — it is just plain good public policy,” Cooper said. “Before we take such an important step as removing our direct ability to hold the board of directors accountable, we should see where Austin Energy stacks up against other utilities.”

The results of the study will be released by the second week of April, when the council will move forward with its decision. Several speakers at the meeting expressed a wish for the data to be published in advance of a public hearing. 

Mayor Lee Leffingwell said at the meeting that he hopes to make a decision on the governing board as soon as possible.

“I want to hold as close to an expeditious timeline as we can,” Leffingwell said at the March 21 meeting. “The city of Austin has been studying this for a couple of decades now — I really don’t think that we’re going to hear much new out of it. I think we’ve basically studied this to death and I see no reason to continue to delay this again.”