Austin Energy governance will remain with Austin City Council after council postponed indefinitely May 23 the ordinance that could have made the switch to the utility being governed independently. Council also approved an ordinance to form a council subcommittee to provide oversight and policy recommendations on the utility.
Councilman Chris Riley said he believes the subcommittee will provide a forum for the council to focus on the many issues pertaining to the municipally owned utility.
"There are so many issues, and many of them are very difficult issues. We are going to need some help in dealing with those issues," Riley said. "The council has a few other things on its plate, and we generally don't do much of anything on our own. Most of everything the council does, we have some committee that helps us."
The ordinance allows any council member to who is interested to serve on the City Council Committee on Austin Energy, and the committee is subject to regulations and stipulations of the Open Meetings Act, which ensures meetings and information are accessible to the public. Some of the issues the committee can take up include the mission, scope and responsibility of relevant committees, major purchases, financial policies and programs for low-income customers. The original ordinance highlighted governance as an issue the committee could address, and Mayor Lee Leffingwell said that topic is still under the purview of the committee.
Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen—an advocacy group focusing on environmental issues—said he likes the idea of the council subcommittee but thinks the issue of governance should be finalized by council before it goes to the subcommittee.
"Having the subcommittee makes a lot of sense," Smith said. "Being able to delve in-depth with [an] issue on a regular basis at a time certain makes a lot of sense. But figuring out this governance piece is something the entire council ought to do before sending it off to subcommittee. Then I think the rest of it can work out."
Councilman Mike Martinez said he supports the subcommittee because he believes it meets the desires of the public and allows the public to have more input in regard to Austin Energy.
"What you're asking tonight is for the entire council to take up any issue that is related to Austin Energy, that elected officials remain in control of that," Martinez said. "That's exactly what's happening. The council subcommittee, again as Chris [Riley] mentioned, all council members can attend that and participate, and whatever happens at the subcommittee must go through the entire council."
Council had been considering an original ordinance that would have switched the governance of AE to a seven-member, independent board rather than the council. Council would have retained the authority to review and approve utility rates, approve the budget of the utility, amend board powers and approve expenditures exceeding $100 million.
Through the course of debate and public comment against the ordinance, the council amended the ordinance to limit the authority of the proposed independent board, giving council more authority and oversight of the board and utility.