The Austin City Council took a small step Thursday night toward creating an independent board to oversee Austin Energy, but tentatively scaled back the powers of the board while delaying a final decision.
And council members’ comments suggested they have many issues still to hash out over at least a few more weeks. Over that time they will almost certainly continue wrestling with how much authority over Austin Energy matters to apportion between themselves, the city manager and a new board.
The key disagreement Thursday was whether a new board should possess only powers specifically granted to it by the council, or whether the board would be presumed to have general oversight of Austin Energy on all matters the council does not reserve for itself.
The academic-sounding question comes with practical consequences. Council Member Laura Morrison, who is suspicious that an appointed board would become insulated from the desires of the residents who collectively own Austin Energy, suggested a very limited range of authority for the board, with virtually all important decisions and many mundane ones remaining with City Manager Marc Ott and his council bosses. For instance, almost every new energy source in which the utility invests would require council sign-off.
Four members of the council agreed with Morrison’s approach, at least for now.
“This would not be the final word” on how much authority the board would possess when it is finally created, Council Member Chris Riley said. “There is a strong interest from the public in the council remaining accountable (on Austin Energy matters). This would just (show) that we will move cautiously” in delegating responsibilities to the board.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman opposed Morrison’s approach.
“The general principle is transfer of authority … (and) create an independent board,” Leffingwell said. “This does not create an independent board. It simply delegates some authority.”
The months-long back-and-forth on the matter boiled down Thursday to environmental and neighborhood activists speaking against creating a board that plays a significant role, with business advocates speaking for it during the four hours of discussion, which ended around 9:30 p.m. More generally, those in favor of a board have said Austin Energy would benefit from a more robust buffer between the utility and the city’s day-to-day politics, while those against say Austin Energy has been well run by a council that can be voted out in the next election.