First of a half-dozen opportunities for candidates to outline energy strategies
by Joseph Caterine
A few dozen people braved the rainy weather last Friday night to attend the first in a series of City Council candidate forums about one of the City’s most valuable assets: Austin Energy. The low turnout and rainfall did not dampen the lively discussion of the issues.
District 6 and 10 candidates mingled with district residents on the second floor of the Rissman Fellowship Hall at First Presbyterian Church, surrounded by darkened stain-glass windows and vacant chairs.
Phillip Martin, deputy director at Progress Texas, an organization that promotes progressive ideals, welcomed attendees as the moderator of the event and emphasized that this was a forum, not a debate. Candidates would have a chance to make one-minute opening and closing speeches, and they would have to answer a series of questions relating to Austin Energy with varying time limits.
District 6 candidates
The District 6 candidates started the opening remarks. Matt Stillwell, whose campaign website states that he founded a marketing firm and an insurance company,talked about living in all the different parts of Austin over the course of his life, and his service in various community groups, including the Oversight Committee of the Round Rock Independent School District, and his neighborhood’s Architectural Control Committee.
Jimmy Flannigan said the relationships he has built through working with the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce made him stand out among the other candidates.
District 10 candidates
Mandy Dealey, who said she has served on six City of Austin boards and commissions, was the first to speak from District 10. She said that her 30 years experience gave her a “breadth and depth” of knowledge unmatched by her opponents.
Jason Meeker, who until July 2014 served on the City’s Zoning and Platting Commission, talked about how he has fought for citizen oversight of Austin Energy and how he has served as president of his homeowner and neighborhood associations.
Tina Cannon, a partner at Napkin Venture said as a long-time accountant she would bring business sense to City Council.
Margie Burciaga, owner of Image Consulting Austin, also noted her financial background and her position as president of her school’s parent teacher association.
Questions for candidates
What is your position on City Council maintaining full responsibility for governance of Austin Energy, transferring authority to an independent board, or privatizing the utility?
All of the candidates at the forum agreed that the city’s electric utility should remain under the City Council’s oversight, with Meeker pointing out that the District 6 and 10 candidates who supported privatizing Austin Energy were not in attendance.
What is your position on City Council obtaining its own consultants to provide technical support to council members, rather than relying solely on Austin Energy staff for information?
Once again, the candidates were in agreement that this was a good idea. Cannon said that there was “a climate of fear” among city employees across departments that made it difficult to get honest opinions from any of them, so third-party consultants were essential in every case.
Where do you stand on achieving Austin’s Climate Protection Goal, including implementation of the goal adopted by the City Council in the Affordable Energy Resolution of making Austin Energy generation resources carbon-free by 2030?
Burciaga and Dealey said that while these goals were admirable, pursuing them should not be at the cost of the taxpayer. Burciaga added that the City needs to make sure to not “lock ourselves into new technology.”
Meeker and Cannon took the opposite position, saying that Austin should strive to be a global leader in reducing carbon emissions.
The District 6 candidates also disagreed on the question. Stillwell said that if Austin Energy was privatized, there would be no way to achieve the Climate Protection goal. He said, “We should do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Flannigan argued that privatization had nothing to do with the question, and that green energy can be profitable if invested in correctly.
What is your position on retiring Austin Energy’s gas-fired Decker plant and coal-fired Fayette plant?
Flannigan said that shutting down Decker seemed more feasible, because in order to shut down Fayette, Austin Energy would have to be the principal owner of the plant (which is co-owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority).
Stillwell said that the City should be trying to get these plants “retired for good” and should not sell them to new ownership.
Burciaga said she was cautious about shutting the plants down without an alternative energy source to replace them.
Dealey said that it was “absolutely critical to phase out the plants,” and she advocated for attaining full ownership of Fayette to meet this goal.
Meeker said that closing Fayette was an obvious choice, and he reminded the audience that Decker was near Lake Walter E. Long, a potential future water source.
Cannon said that closing down these plants would only be achieved through strong leadership.
What is your position on customer adoption of solar energy at homes and businesses and what, if any, policy changes would you support?
Dealey said that it should be encouraged, but she said that Austin Energy needs a better business plan altogether.
Meeker told a story about how he led his homeowners association in changing their neighborhood rules to allow residential solar panels. He said that if the City continues to incentivize homes and businesses to choose alternative energy, the cost will continue to go down.
Cannon said that affordability is the real issue that needs to be addressed, and she proposed the idea of “solar neighborhoods,” where solar energy could be shared by residents.
Burciaga’s main concern was finding a way to balance the budget, saying that incentivizing customers to switch to alternative energy needed to be phased in.
Stillwell pointed out how Germany has developed solar energy to the point where it is over half of the country’s energy output, and he proposed that Austin Energy could have a “rent-to-own” program with renewable energy generators or give incentives to businesses to install solar panels on carports, for example.
Flannigan said that everyone wants to invest in the most efficient energy, and the City should therefore try and make the process of buying and using renewable energy as efficient as possible. He also pointed out that large parts of District 6 were not serviced by Austin Energy.
How should the water use requirements for energy extraction, such as fracking, and energy production affect the selection of Austin Energy’s resources?
Flannigan said water impact is the most dramatic issue in regard to energy because it is a rapidly shrinking finite resource, and he also said District 6 is the only district that borders Lake Travis.
Stillwell said that solar energy generation uses no water, and that City Council needs to look at energy problems holistically.
Meeker said he sees water use as a moral question, and that if the City does not strive to switch to a greater dependence on solar and wind energy then the area will “pay a heavy price in the future.”
Cannon advocated for a public audit of the City’s water utility and a comparison of Austin’s water use with other cities. She said that the City needs to be more serious on conservation.
Burciaga said that in order to stop fracking (which uses millions of gallons of water per day of drilling) City Council would need relationships with officials at the state level, which she claimed to have.
Dealey said that she was not in favor offracking.
What, if any, changes would you support to make electric bills more affordable for low-income customers and what will you do to help them conserve energy?
Cannon responded, “the drainage fee is completely unfair to the rental community,” and she reminded the audience that Austin Energy is “our company.”
Burciaga said she was in favor of price-tiering, and she said that there needed to be better enforcement of code compliance on landlords.
Dealey said that the City could do a better job of encouraging the insulation of homes and apartments.
Meeker proposed that since the City already subsidized businesses to use renewable energy, why couldn’t this be done with individual residents? The City could help provide low-cost loans to renovate homes to be more energy efficient, he said.
Stillwell said that he supports the expansion of the programs that Austin Energy already has available, and that it would be possible to phase in a program that required landlords to maximize energy efficiency without burdening renters with the costs.
Flannigan disagreed with this idea, saying that this type of approach would surely make rents go up. He preferred an incentives program, he said.
What is your position on the continued use of utility subsidies to industrial and large commercial customers?
Flannigan said that the City could be better partners with these customers, and that through this relationship they could encourage them to be more green.
Stillwell said that the City could change the qualifications of the program to make it so those who received the subsidies were exceptional pioneers of using renewable energy.
Burciaga said that subsidies should be cut.
Dealey also thought that subsidies should be reconsidered, adding “we are not conserving.”
Meeker said that the benefit these companies gain from these subsidies needs to be channeled back to the public.
Cannon also thought that subsidies should be reevaluated.
Fifty-five percent of Austinites are renters. What is your position on requiring owners of apartments and other rental properties to meet minimum energy efficiency standards?
Dealey said that it was a delicate issue, and she proposed a type of “payback system” so that landlords do not pass costs onto renters.
Meeker thought making renewable energy more appealing was the solution.
Cannon proposed a rental property registration initiative to map energy hot spots.
Burciaga once again said that the main problem was poor enforcement of code compliance.
Stillwell said that if prospective renters had an easy way to see how much their average utility bill would be before they signed a lease, it would incentivize landlords to maximize energy efficiency.
Flannigan said that there was a difference between renting apartments and homes in terms of energy efficiency and that a balance needed to be struck between affordability and availability.
What is your position on the continued existence of the GreenChoice program and what, if any, changes do you think need to be made to it?
Almost all the candidates agreed the program should be continued and expanded, with Burciaga dissenting to say that the City needs to do a better job of surveying what customers want.
Austin Energy owns a 16 percent share of the two South Texas nuclear reactors, which are set to retire in 2027 and 2028, but may be relicensed. Do you favor keeping, adding to, or phasing out nuclear power as an energy source for Austin Energy?
Cannon said, “I support phasing it out” and Dealey also thought it should be phased out.
Burciaga said that it was an unreliable and costly energy source and said that gas was a better alternative.
Meeker said that after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plantdisaster, it was morally wrong to use nuclear power.
Stillwell said that nuclear power requires enormous amounts of water and he echoed the safety concerns.
Flannigan agreed with the others, but since the plant’s retirement was 15 years in the future, he believed there were more important decisions for City Council to make.
As part of their closing statements, Flannigan asked with so much agreement between the candidates present tonight, how was it possible for the voter to decide? He said that he has spent his entire life working with city officials, mostly through the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and that this experience makes him qualified to ensure that District 6 is no longer ignored by City Council.
Stillwell said that he wishes the absent candidates had attended so the audience could see how “scary” their positions on energy were. He once again evoked his broad perspective earned from traveling the world and living in different parts of Austin. When he ran for state representative in 2012, water use was one of his main issues, and it will continue to be in this campaign, he said.
Burciaga said that Austin is at a crossroads and needs to decide what is the biggest priority. For her, affordability, green energy, and transportation concerns should all come after balancing the budget. She also said how she wants the City Council to meet regularly in all the districts to increase citizen participation.
Dealey started her closing remarks by apologizing for being “off her game.” She said her track record in City politics shows her support for the environment, and she listed her many endorsements from environmental organizations. She rejected the label of being an “insider,” and said she preferred “observer.”
Meeker said that the reason he has not fund-raised as much as his opponents is because as a Zoning and Platting commissioner he never votes to appease developers. He encouraged the audience to get straight answers from their candidates. He also reminisced about running in 2008 (against incumbent Council Member Lee Leffingwell), where he was accused of an ethics violation and had to drop out of the race. He later discovered that no complaint had been filed, so he worked to get two bills passed through the State Legislature that would improve local ethics policy.
Cannon asked the crowd if they were happy with the way things are now. She said she would bring “real world” experience to City Council. Her campaign has knocked on over 13,000 doors and made over 10,000 calls, she said. The adoption of 10-1 is “changing the way we govern,” she said, and she encouraged the audience to not pass on the opportunity.
The forum was hosted by Clean Energy for Austin, which is composed of nonprofit organizations Public Citizen, SEED Coalition, Sierra Club Austin Group, Solar Austin, Texas ROSE (Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy), Clean Water Action, Austin Climate Action Network, and Texas Drought Project.
David Foster of Clean Water Action thought that the forum was informative and educational, and he was happy that Clean Water could be a co-sponsor of this series. He said that it was “too bad” that the other candidates decided not to attend.
Kaiba White of Public Citizen Texas also wished that more of the candidates had shown. She said that three had canceled the day of the event, although she refused to give their names. She also had hoped to see a greater showing from residents, but she acknowledged that it was the first event of the series and that it was a rainy Friday night.
White also said that the event was filmed for those who couldn’t attend, and the video will be uploaded to www.texasvox.org and www.cleanenergyforaustin.org.
Five more forums are scheduled. Clean Energy Forums for council and mayoral candidates begin tomorrow, September 19. To see the complete schedule visit http://cleanenergyforaustin.org.
The no-show candidates
Most if not all of the candidates who did not attend the forum are Republicans or lean toward the GOP, based on their history of voting in GOP primary elections, as reported by The Austin Bulldog August 29, 2014, in “Candidates Have Voting Records Too.”
The four District 6 candidates who did not appear are Mackenzie-Anne Kelly (who did not vote in a primary), Lloyd Gordon “Pete” Phillips Jr., Jay Byron Wiley, and Donald Shelly “Don” Zimmerman.
The four District 10 candidates who did not appear are Sheri Perry Gallo, Matthew Lamar “Matt” Lamon, Robert Dartanian Thomas (who in 2012 ran as a Republican against incumbent Democratic State Represenative Donna Howard), and William Lee “Bill” Worsham.