Environment isn’t only priority
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.