Austin
8:10 am
Fri April 12, 2013

First Step Towards (Weak) Austin Energy Independent Board

The Austin City Council took the first step last night towards moving the governance of Austin Energy from the council to an independent board.

The council unanimously approved the transition on first reading – with council member Kathie Tovo absent. The ordinance will have to be approved on three readings.

Council members did make several changes to the original proposal last night – weakening the power of the independent board and giving more oversight back to council.

In a telling exchange between Council Member Mike Martinez and Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Martinez asked Leffingwell what power the council would have to overturn any action by the independent board:

Martinez: Would we have the authority to put an item to council to reverse a decision that had been made by the energy board.

Leffingwell: The whole establishment of the board is by an ordinance. Council can always change or amend an ordinance.

Martinez: Right, but the action would have already taken place. It wouldn't reverse their action unless we created a new ordinance that did.

Leffingwell: Well, I'd have to look at the particular hypothetical ... I mean the only way you can prevent that anyway is to say that any action by the board doesn't go into effect until it's approved by council.

Martinez: That's kind of what we do now.

Leffingwell: It's what we do now. So we've already virtually made this into a new Electric Utility Commission anyway so I don't know if it makes much difference.

The Electric Utility Commission advises the council on related issues but does not have the power to make binding decisions on things like rate structures, billing procedures and fuel costs and charges.

Supporters of the independent board say it’s necessary because the council has too much on its plate to properly govern such a large utility. Those against it worry that the independent board would not be accountable to voters.