Castillo: Bloated water bills. Secret hiring. This isn’t ‘fake’ news

1:01 p.m Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 Opinion

If you’ve ever received a faulty bill that was too high, and tried to rectify it, you know the experience is not for anyone lacking a steel will. Even if you are the unrelenting type who won’t take “no” for an answer, the task can fall somewhere between Sisyphean and Herculean.

So, you can imagine how more than 7,000 Austin residents must be feeling now that Austin Energy says it will give them refunds for high water bills disputed since last fall. 

RELATED: Austin utility to give refunds for fall water bill spikes

As the American-Statesman’s Elizabeth Findell recently reported, Austin Energy, which handles reading meters and billing for city utilities, said it will make good on the bad water bills, which the utility blamed on a nonweather-related anomaly involving abnormally low August meter readings and September spikes.

“We should have found this faster — and we should have found it ourselves,” Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said.

Sargent is right: Austin Energy should have had better safeguards preventing unusual water meter reads.

The city-owned utility’s apologies, however, were an about-face from its monthslong stance that it would not reimburse customers and that it was impossible for meter reading to be flawed. 

Did I mention it takes a nothing-fazes-me attitude to dispute a bill?

To correct the overcharges, Austin Energy will provide bill credits averaging about $20, according to city staff. An additional 700 customers had exceptionally high September increases not necessarily related to low readings the month before. Those cases will be resolved on a case-by-case basis. One of those customers told Findell the utility adjusted his bill by $371.

LOCAL IMPACT: Austin panel smacks utility for lacking answers on water bill spikes.

Some of the thousands of customers affected overall had been trying to get the city to make things right since last October, when the Statesman broke the story and stayed with it.

Austin Energy’s apology for how it handled customer complaints and its vow to reimburse customers are good first steps to restoring trust in the public-owned utility. But it must also get to the bottom of what happened on the affected routes, so that the problem doesn’t resurface.

The utility, which contracts with private meter-reading companies, says it’s working on that. It asked Corix Utilities, which performed last August’s readings but no longer handles them, to review their operations and explain. The utility said it’s also reviewing how it deals with the public.

Perhaps the only thing rivaling a bad bill is bad customer service.

On a related note — I promise to make the connection — we’re beginning to glean details of the Austin City Council’s secretive search for a city manager, now that the city has complied with a Texas attorney general’s decision that it should release much of the information it withheld from the public about the search.

CITY HALL: Secretive manager search began with 44 applicants

The secret search began with 44 applicants, a pool including lawyers and real estate bankers, federal and state employees, a former firefighter and a drug enforcement agent. Applicants also included city managers or former city managers and assistant city managers of Texas cities, including one from Austin.

Eight women, four African-Americans and seven Hispanics were among the applicants.

The council voted to keep all applicants secret last March, saying confidentiality would bring a larger candidate pool. In what amounted to a hide-and-seek mockery of a process that should have been transparent, the city concealed candidate interviews by moving them to an undisclosed location blocked from the public. Some candidates either resisted or complied with a search firm’s recommendation to shield their identities.

The Statesman sued for the city manager search records, leading to the attorney general’s decision last month. The council voted in December to hire Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk.

Why does this matter?

The city manager is Austin’s most powerful position, with responsibility over all city departments, a $3.9 billion budget and more than 17,000 employees. The manager executes the City Council’s policies on issues such as affordable housing, growth and transportation and how the city spends taxpayer money. Your money.

VIEWPOINTS: Precourt is eyeing Guerrero Park. Why that’s worth a debate.

Having access to information about the applicants would have allowed the public to assess the field and to get a sense of whether Austin got a good candidate pool.

The Statesman’s monthslong digging on the manager search and the water bill disputes are examples of watchdog reporting and accountability journalism.

Just about every day it seems, the president attacks the integrity of journalists when the facts they uncover do not flatter him. Unbowed, journalists go about doing their work, digging for the truth, holding truth to power, whether it be questioning the wisdom of a $25 billion border wall or reporting on a $20 water bill credit.

Holding our government and our elected representatives accountable is something we strive to do every day, emboldened by the principle that a free press is a hallmark of a democratic society.