Ott chooses California exec to run city’s utility
$285,000 salary will make Weis’ pay tops among city employees
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.’
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.
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.