Ott plugs into com­mu­nity lead­ers

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

City Man­ager Marc Ott didn’t panic or buckle when his picks for Austin En­ergy’s gen­eral man­ager job ran into huge op­po­si­tion from en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and City Hall. He wisely re­grouped and formed a del­e­ga­tion of com­mu­nity lead­ers — that in­cluded crit­ics — to judge for it­self whether Larry Weis, one of three fi­nal­ists for the po­si­tion, was right for the job.

That strat­egy seems to have worked. On Thurs­day, Weis ac­cepted the job and now seems to be en­joy­ing broad com­mu­nity sup­port. Weis has 29 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in the elec­tric util­ity in­dus­try but also brings wa­ter con­ser­va­tion ex­pe­ri­ence to the job and wants to bridge gaps be­tween the city’s wa­ter and elec­tric util­i­ties. That is a plus.

Even so, Weis has not won over all crit­ics. Some still be­lieve he lacks the vi­sion and skills to lead a pub­lic util­ity that sup­plies power for Austin and por­tions of Travis and Wil­liamson coun­ties and has $2.3 bil­lion in as­sets and a na­tional rep­u­ta­tion for in­no­va­tion.

It’s true that Weis is com­ing from a much smaller op­er­a­tion and has limited ex­pe­ri­ence in han­dling rate cases. Austin En­ergy hasn’t raised rates in at least a decade and is poised to do so. But it is sig­nif­i­cant that rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the en­vi­ron­men­tal, busi­ness, non­profit and faith com­mu­ni­ties be­lieve Weis is a good fit for Austin En­ergy as well as for a com­mu­nity that plays its pol­i­tics like a con­tact sport. We urge Austin to give him a fair op­por­tu­nity to do the job.

There is agree­ment on Weis among those who ac­com­pa­nied Ott to Tur­lock, Calif., ear­lier this month to check out Ott’s pick on his home turf: Martha Smi­ley, a lo­cal at­tor­ney and civic leader; Jim Marston, head of the En­vi­ron­men­tal De­fense Fund’s Texas of­fice; the Rev. Joseph Parker of David Chapel Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church; and El­iza May, a for­mer chair­woman of the lo­cal Catholic Char­i­ties board and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Greater Austin His­panic Cham­ber of Com­merce.

The trip in­cluded in­ter­views with Weis’s cur­rent bosses, com­mu­nity lead­ers and in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als. The feed­back was very pos­i­tive, prais­ing Weis for his man­age­ment skills, knowl­edge of the in­dus­try, green en­ergy ini­tia­tives and ca­pac­ity to take on greater chal­lenges.

“I think he is smart, like­able, in­ter­est­ing, and a good man­ager,” Marston said. He added that Weis has a good un­der­stand­ing of clean en­ergy but needs to learn more about the tech­no­log­i­cal changes that are re­shap­ing the util­ity in­dus­try.

Parker added that Weis un­der­stands the eco­nomic devel­op­ment di­men­sion of the util­ity’s work.

“I also be­lieve he is an in­no­va­tor who will honor Austin En­ergy’s his­tory and rep­u­ta­tion but can lead it into the fu­ture, par­tic­u­larly re­gard­ing clean and re­new­able en­ergy,” Parker said.

It says a lot about Weis’s mo­ti­va­tion that he is ac­cept­ing a com­pen­sa­tion pack­age for the Austin En­ergy job that is not much more than he makes now and one that is sig­nif­i­cantly be­low what most of his peers earn at pub­lic and pri­vate util­i­ties. When he takes over in Septem­ber, he will earn $285,000, not quite 3 per­cent more than the $277,000 yearly pay he earns in Tur­lock.

While in Austin for com­mu­nity meet­ings, Weis ex­tended a hand to crit­ics who blasted him. But the com­mu­nity also learned some­thing about Ott, who ini­tially looked as if he would be forced to re­open the search for a gen­eral man­ager for the util­ity that helps fi­nance the city’s gen­eral fund. This year, the elec­tric util­ity trans­ferred $101 mil­lion into the city’s gen­eral fund to help fi­nance city ser­vices.

Ott kept his cool when en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists (and some City Ccoun­cil mem­bers) waged a cam­paign to de­rail his choices for fi­nal­ists — Weis and David Wright, gen­eral man­ager of the River­side Pub­lic Util­i­ties Depart­ment, and a third can­di­date who dropped out. He wisely reached out to the broader com­mu­nity on a de­ci­sion that af­fects all Austin res­i­dents and busi­nesses that pay for elec­tric­ity from Austin En­ergy.

In do­ing so, Ott pro­vided a needed fo­rum for the whole com­mu­nity. Its pref­er­ence is clear: Weis.

Let’s give him a chance.

larry Weis When City Man­ager Marc ott’s choice to lead austin en­ergy was met with re­sis­tance, ott reached out to com­mu­nity lead­ers so they could get to know Weis bet­ter.

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