En­vi­ron­ment isn’t only pri­or­ity

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Marc Ott is right to take more time and do ad­di­tional home­work in search­ing for the next gen­eral man­ager of Austin En­ergy. Ott is plan­ning to visit the home turfs of the two fi­nal­ists vy­ing for the post. He took that ap­proach in hir­ing Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, and it makes sense to go to the com­mu­ni­ties to in­ter­view those who are most fa­mil­iar with the work and rep­u­ta­tions of the fi­nal­ists.

The search will take Ott to River­side, Calif., to get ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion about David Wright, gen­eral man­ager of the River­side Pub­lic Util­i­ties Depart­ment, and to Tur­lock, Calif., south of Sacra­mento, to get more in­sight on Larry Weis, who heads the Tur­lock Ir­ri­ga­tion District.

Ott had been plan­ning to make a de­ci­sion sooner, af­ter a pub­lic hear­ing last week in which Austin res­i­dents met and in­ter­viewed both fi­nal­ists. Ott also held pri­vate meet­ings last week to give rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the busi­ness and en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ties more time to grill the fi­nal­ists. We re­gret that Ott did not tele­vise those meet­ings so that the pub­lic could have seen Wright and Weis un­der tough ques­tion­ing.

Those meet­ings have as­suaged the busi­ness com­mu­nity, which is sat­is­fied with the ex­pe­ri­ence, cre­den­tials and lead­er­ship skills of the fi­nal­ists. But en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have been very vo­cal about their dis- plea­sure with the can­di­dates — even be­fore the meet­ings last week. They have waged a fierce cam­paign to de­rail the re­main­ing fi­nal­ists af­ter Ott re­jected their choice, Karl Rábago, who is in charge of Austin En­ergy’s re­new­able en­ergy ini­tia­tives.

Specif­i­cally, they com­plained that nei­ther fi­nal­ist has “a bold vi­sion” for lead­ing Austin En­ergy into a phase in which the city-owned util­ity would triple its port­fo­lio of re­new­able en­ergy sources while mak­ing a profit. They should be re­minded that the Austin com­mu­nity is not mono­lithic, and what passes as a bold vi­sion for some is a very nar­row one to oth­ers.

In think­ing about the next gen­eral man­ager, Ott and his bosses — Mayor Lee Leff­in­g­well and the City Coun­cil — should re­flect on fi­nan­cial fac­tors as well as en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns. To start with, the util­ity must be sol­vent. Next year, Austin En­ergy’s pro­jected short­fall is $83 mil­lion.

Austin En­ergy is a util­ity with big costs — about $1 bil­lion — in cap­i­tal projects, in­clud­ing main­tain­ing and up­grad­ing in­fra­struc­ture even as it adds re­new­able en­ergy sources into its power mix. And the city de­pends on Austin En­ergy prof­its, which have been used over the years to help fi­nance the city’s gen­eral fund and to keep elec­tric util­ity rates steady.

Given that the City Coun­cil has passed a power gen­er­a­tion plan to ex­pand Austin En­ergy’s green en­ergy port­fo­lio over the next 10 years, no gen­eral man­ager would have the author­ity to re­verse that pol­icy. It’s an ag­gres­sive ini­tia­tive that was crafted by all seg­ments of the Austin com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing those rep­re­sent­ing busi­ness in­ter­ests and low-in­come peo­ple. To be suc­cess­ful, it must be car­ried out in a bal­anced man­ner, or the util­ity could end up alien­at­ing its biggest users and fi­nan­cially stran­gling cus­tomers on fixed in­comes.

We were im­pressed that Weis and Wright have em­pha­sized a bal­anced ap­proach in deal­ing with the chal­lenges and goals con­fronting Austin En­ergy. Both have ex­pe­ri­ence with re­new­able en­ergy sources. And Wright, who holds a mas­ter’s de­gree in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion, is a cer­ti­fied pub­lic ac­coun­tant.

As the process moves for­ward, we urge Ott to be trans­par­ent and de­lib­er­a­tive. He should con­sider tak­ing a com­mu­nity del­e­ga­tion to Cal­i­for­nia.

And ev­ery­one — from Ott and the City Coun­cil to the en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mu­nity — should re­mem­ber that Austin is big­ger and broader than just one in­ter­est group, no mat­ter how vo­cal and po­lit­i­cally con­nected it is.

We urge them to con­sider all of Austin’s di­verse com­mu­ni­ties in mak­ing a de­ci­sion that will af­fect all cus­tomers and the rates we pay for power.

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