Should an Independent Board Oversee Austin Energy?

Feb 13, 2013

Austin Energy’s power structure is up in the air.

Tomorrow, the Austin City Council will vote on a resolution that would relinquish much of its control of the city-owned utility to an appointed board of legal and energy experts. Currently, the city council oversees Austin Energy. But following the recommendation of the Electric Utility Commission – not to mention the council’s protracted and politically-fraught redesign of electric rates – Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and City Council Member Bill Spelman are supporting a resolution that would change that.

Noting that the council would still retain control over important measures like rates and energy sources, Leffingwell and Spelman argued their proposal was the best of both worlds. In an editorial in the Austin American-Statesman, they wrote:

A professional board would emphasize efficiency and competitiveness. The City Council emphasizes the customer’s values and needs. Which should we choose?

They’re both important. That’s why we need both.

But at a press conference in front of City Hall Wednesday afternoon, consumer and environmental advocates argued against the resolution. Holding signs that read “Keep the power in our hands,” opponents said they couldn’t support an unelected utility board that was unaccountable to voters. 

“This is our public utility, we are the owners,” said Karen Hadden, director of SEED Coalition. “The resolution tomorrow could actually seriously hamper our efforts to weigh in effectively by setting up a board that is independent, not an elected board separate from the City Council.”

Roy Waley of the Austin Sierra Club said city council members are trying to shrug off this responsibility.

“Each and every person that is on the city council right now ran with the understanding that this was part of their job description,” Waley said. “They knew it’s their job, and that's all we’re asking them to do: Do your job.”

If the resolution passes, the city manager will have until March 21 to develop the ordinance to create the utility board.