Ott plugs into community leaders
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.