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

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.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Opinion

Letters to the editor: May 21, 2018

Breakthrough! Refreshing news: President Trump’s lead lawyer says he wanted to have “the Hillary Clinton treatment” for the president. What a breakthrough for transparency. Clinton was treated to 11-plus hours of testimony to Congress, her files and servers turned over to the FBI, and Republican leaders asked the Justice Department...
Opinion: Trump breaks bread, glasses and party at lunch

POTUS coming to Tuesday lunch. Translated, the president of the United States is joining 50 Republican senators in the Capitol to crash their private Tuesday lunch. Nobody is glad to hear this on the Senate side. We love the constitutional separation of powers. The Senate is the last citadel of democracy, they say. We in the press are free as birds...
Opinion: Just saying yes to drug companies

Last week we learned that Novartis, the Swiss drug company, had paid Michael Cohen — Donald Trump’s personal lawyer — $1.2 million for what ended up being a single meeting. Then, on Friday, Trump announced a “plan” to reduce drug prices. Why the scare quotes? Because the “plan” was mostly free of substance...
Facebook comments: May 20, 2018
Facebook comments: May 20, 2018

In recent commentary the American-Statesman’s Bridget Grumet wrote about the uncertainty that those who receive federal housing aid are facing after Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson unveiled a proposal to raise the rents on millions of households who receive the assistance. “Be grateful for your good fortune if you don&rsquo...
Herman: Gubernatorial win for Valdez or White would be history-making
Herman: Gubernatorial win for Valdez or White would be history-making

Sometime Tuesday night the relatively few ballots will be tallied and we’ll bid a political farewell, possibly for all time, to one of the two contenders for the gubernatorial nomination of the once-great Democratic Party of Texas. The winner will advance to an upmountain (which is even steeper than uphill) battle with GOP Gov. Greg Abbott in...
More Stories