City Hall Hustle
4:13 pm
Wed May 8, 2013

City Hall Hustle: Council Talks Austin Energy, Ethics & Obama

How powerful should an independent Austin Energy board be?

That’s the question the Austin City Council is asking itself. Right now, the council governs the city-owned utility. But council members are talking about turning over that power to an independent board. And haggling over the power of this unelected panel continues to dominate talk at City Hall.

It looks like the council may be slouching toward agreement – even if it’s less than unanimous.

A suggestion from council member Chris Riley this week appears to enjoy majority support. “The board decisions would become final,” Riley said, unless council took action to intervene. Then, the council could potentially overrule the board. Riley’s suggestion seems to have won over council members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo; they had fought for the most council control over the new board.

But Mayor Lee Leffingwell has been the most adamant in calling for the most independence for the Austin Energy board. And he seemed content to play devils advocate throughout the meeting, dissecting the finer points of Riley’s proposal – like whether the entire council, or a special subcommittee would hold sway over board proposals.

Leffingwell reiterated a point he’s made a previous discussions: that a board that’s independent in-name- only would invite scrutiny from state lawmakers. Left unsaid? The assumption said lawmakers would seek to deregulate the Austin electricity market – putting the financial health of the utility at risk.

“I think what we’re really doing here at this point in time is creating the illusion that we have independent governance of the electric utility when we don’t,” Leffingwell said. But at this point, he’s increasingly outnumbered.

The council will take the measure up on Thursday, but only on second reading; third and final reading is expected later this month.

Can’t Knock the Hustle

In Fact Daily’s Mike Kanin stops by with a provocative story: Austin city council members are asking why a damning report on city ethics didn’t see the light of day for nearly three years. 

A 2010 survey of 4,400 city employees, performed by the Ethics Resource Center, found two-thirds of employees perceive that the city has a strong ethical culture – that’s compared to a national average of 80 percent. Over 40 percent reported seeing misconduct in the last year. And respondents in five departments reported the highest rates of misconduct: Fire, EMS, Human Resources, Parks and Recreation, and Solid Waste Services. 

“Austin employees aren’t as confident in the ethics programs offered by the city,” Kanin tells the Hustle, “and – I think it’s fair to say – aren’t as confident in the ethics of city management.” The report already has  council members talking. “What concerns me,” council member Bill Spelman said at a meeting earlier today, “is that we didn’t like the findings, and therefore we decided to sweep the whole thing under the rug.”

And if that wasn’t enough excitement – President Obama’s Austin visit this Thursday throws the council agenda into further disarray. Have anything to add? Drop us a line at news@kut.org