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At Council: Independent Austin Energy Board Gets First OK

Despite protests from some clean energy and consumer advocates, the Austin City Council voted unanimously last night to take to the first step towards creating a board of legal and energy experts to oversee Austin Energy. 

The resolution directs the city manager to develop the ordinance that will outline the dynamics of this board by March 21. While the board will oversee Austin Energy, city council will retain final approval of electric rates, transactions of more than $100 million and any board nominees.The resolution comes on the heels of the debate over October's rate increase. Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and City Council Member Bill Spelman have also said Austin Energy has gotten too big for the city council to handle.

"We need to retain our emphasis on greenness and efficiency," Spelman said at the meeting. "But at the same time, we need to get it cheap. I don't know how to keep it cheap."

Spelman said the most city councils across the country split control of a utility company with a board, such as the one proposed in the resolution.

The new board will consist of seven members, one of which will be the mayor. The board members will be nominated by a subcommittee of the city council, and then approved by the city council. The city council can veto any nomination.

But not everyone is convinced this is the best move.

Karen Hadden, director of SEED Coalition and an environmental activist, said she was against the idea of turning over power to a board that was unelected and appointed because citizens could not keep them accountable.

"To create a separate board removes the public accountability," Hadden said at the meeting. "This is our utility. We care about it. We own it, and we do not want you to give it away."

Council Member Kathie Tovo said during last night’s meeting that she won’t approve allowing the board to set policies that she says rightly belong to elected officials.

“I think about some of the comments that people have talked about tonight and the resolution that we passed last year as a council to look at alternatives to coal and investigate those," Tovo said. "Those are the kinds of things that elected officials need to listen to their constituencies and continue to make policies about. And that is not something that we should turn over to an unelected board.”

Council members will still have to approve the ordinance from the city manager before an independent board can be created.

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