Ott chooses Cal­i­for­nia exec to run city’s util­ity

$285,000 salary will make Weis’ pay tops among city em­ploy­ees

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Marty Toohey

Larry Weis, a self-de­scribed “closet green” who has run a ru­ral elec­tric­ity and wa­ter provider in Cal­i­for­nia for the past decade, is be­ing hired as the next gen­eral man­ager of Austin En­ergy, the city­owned elec­tric util­ity.

City Man­ager Marc Ott an­nounced his de­ci­sion to hire Weis at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day, say­ing that a visit last week to Weis’ Tur­lock Ir­ri­ga­tion District re­moved any doubt about his top choice.

‘This is one of the most ex­cit­ing and chal­leng­ing times (Austin En­ergy) has seen,” Ott said. “I’m here to­day to tell you, yes, I be­lieve (Weis) is ready.”

Weis will start Sept. 27 and earn $285,000 a year, mak­ing him the high­est-paid city em­ployee. Roger Dun­can, the pre­vi­ous gen­eral man­ager, made $216,756 an­nu­ally. Ott said the higher salary was nec­es­sary be­cause Weis was mak­ing

$277,188 a year in base salary in Cal­i­for­nia. The salary is still less than those of the heads of many com­pa­ra­ble util­i­ties, city of­fi­cials said.

“I put my heart and soul into mak­ing (Tur­lock) a big­ger and bet­ter or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Weis said Thurs­day in Cal­i­for­nia, “and I’m very ex­cited about the chal­lenge of do­ing the same in Austin.”

The hir­ing was hardly a sur­prise — be­fore leav­ing for Cal­i­for­nia, Ott had in­formed his City Coun­cil bosses that he in­tended to pick Weis un­less he un­cov­ered some­thing un­ex­pected in Tur­lock. And, al­though some en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists said they still op­pose Weis, the an­nounce­ment was greeted with vary­ing de­grees of sup­port from most of the city’s stake­holder groups.

“In my per­fect world, he would know more about the smart grid and clean tech,” which will be key as­pects of 21st-cen­tury util­i­ties, said Jim Marston, head of the Texas chap­ter of the En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fense Fund, who ac­com­pa­nied Ott on his Cal­i­for­nia trip as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Austin’s en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist com­mu­nity.

But, Marston said, “I think (Weis) is smart, open, and will learn the things he needs to know.”

Martha Smi­ley, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Austin’s busi­ness com­mu­nity who also ac­com­pa­nied Ott, said Weis “had, across the board, with ev­ery per­son we talked to, an ex­cel­lent rep­u­ta­tion as a util­ity man­ager, in­no­va­tor and com­mu­nity leader.”

Weis will face sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges in tak­ing over Austin En­ergy, a $1.3 bil­lion en­ter­prise that, like the elec­tric in­dus­try it­self, is fac­ing a pe­riod of un­cer­tainty.

In the short term, Austin En­ergy will have to deal with a loom­ing bud­get cri­sis that Dun­can said would leave the util­ity $177 mil­lion in the red by 2013 with­out ma­jor changes. Austin En­ergy will al­most cer­tainly raise rates sig­nif­i­cantly around 2012 through a po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive process that will be watched care­fully by state leg­is­la­tors.

Weis will also over­see an ag­gres­sive, City Coun­cil­man dated switch to re­new­able-en­ergy sources such as wind and so­lar power. By the end of the decade, Austin En­ergy plans to get 35 per­cent of its elec­tric­ity from those sources, up from 10 per­cent now, and be­gin phas­ing out coal, Austin’s biggest source of elec­tric­ity.

Ott said one of Weis’ ma­jor ac­com­plish­ments was his over­sight of a sim­i­lar, state­man­dated shift in Tur­lock, which now gets 28 per­cent of its elec­tric­ity from re­new­able sources.

In a meet-and-greet with the pub­lic in Austin ear­lier this month, Weis said he is concerned about coal’s con­tri­bu­tion to global cli­mate change, and “as far as new nu­clear (pur­chases) go, I’m not go­ing to touch it.”

Tur­lock has had sev­eral rate in­creases in re­cent years, in­clud­ing a 15 per­cent in­crease last year. But it still has one of Cal­i­for­nia’s low­est rates, and Ott said he is con­fi­dent with Weis’ abil­ity to keep rates rea­son­able.

Meet­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s man­dates “is chal­leng­ing, and it’s not cheap,” Ott said. “Much of what it cost to move in that di­rec­tion is a func­tion of the mar­ket.”

Some of Austin’s en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists dis­puted that anal­y­sis. Mike Sloan, a wind en­ergy ad­vo­cate, said in email ex­changes with Weis that he was not sat­is­fied with Weis’ ex­pla­na­tion of the in­creases

‘This is one of the most ex­cit­ing and chal­leng­ing times (Austin En­ergy) has seen. I’m here to­day to tell you, yes, I be­lieve (Weis) is ready.’

Marc Ott

Austin city man­ager

and was also not sold on Weis’ knowl­edge of the Texas en­ergy mar­ket.

Joel Ser­face, for­mer head of the Clean En­ergy In­cu­ba­tor, said that by hir­ing a rel­a­tive un­known, Austin is risk­ing some of its na­tional rep­u­ta­tion for in­no­va­tion be­cause the util­ity di­rec­tor will play a ma­jor role in the city’s plans to at­tract new technology com­pa­nies.

“Af­ter years of Austin En­ergy push­ing the en­ve­lope of both low res­i­den­tial bills and in­no­va­tion, we can no longer take it for granted,” ac­tivist Robin Rather said. “It’s not clear why Ott is tak­ing such a big risk on some­one with so lit­tle ex­per­tise in what mat­ters most.”

Larry Weis CEO of ru­ral Cal­i­for­nia util­ity.

Jar­rad Hen­der­son

City Man­ager Marc Ott an­nounces at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day that he has hired Larry Weis to lead Austin En­ergy. Weis will over­see an ag­gres­sive switch to re­new­able-en­ergy sources.

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