CPS Energy Moves To Incorporate Public Comment, Live Video in Its Meetings

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From left, CPS Energy trustees Willis Mackey, Janie Gonzalez, Ed Kelley, and John Steen, and Chief Legal Officer Carolyn Shellman listen to the public at a hearing on a proposed climate plan.

Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report

From left, CPS Energy trustees Willis Mackey, Janie Gonzalez, Ed Kelley, and John Steen, and Chief Legal Officer Carolyn Shellman listen to the public at a hearing on a proposed climate plan in February.

CPS Energy will for the first time begin allowing members of the public to speak at its board meetings, which it will livestream.

The utility’s board of trustees voted unanimously on the two separate measures, though board members imposed a trial period of six months after the implementation of each. Board members did not specify when they would begin integrating public comments and video into their meetings.

Most local government entities, including the City, Bexar County, the San Antonio Water System, and VIA Metropolitan Transit, hold public comment periods at each meeting and livestream them on video. CPS Energy has held lengthy public comment sessions on issues like its proposed energy mix over the coming decades, but the utility does not make regular time for members of the public to address the board.

The board’s decision comes at a critical time for CPS Energy. At Monday’s meeting, President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams said tightening finances after the closure of its Deely coal-fired generators are making it likely the utility will have to ask City Council to raise its customers’ rates for the first time since 2013.

“We have not declared a rate case, but we think that this year is looking more and more like there’s pressure to have one because we don’t have Deely this year, we don’t have that extra revenue, so it’s going to be very hard to make up that much of a hurdle,” Gold-Williams said.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a CPS Energy trustee in his official capacity, was the strongest advocate for public comments and livestreams, calling them “best practices in a public agency meeting.” Nirenberg made both motions for the board to vote on the measures.

“The board governance, whether it’s SAWS, VIA, CPS, the City, or anywhere else, is not the way it was, even 10 or 15 years ago,” Nirenberg said. “There is an evolving expectation from the public that we serve, the public that owns us, and that’s something we need to be very cognizant of.”

Trustee Ed Kelley, a former board chair and retired USAA executive who’s served on the utility’s board since 2011, made the strongest argument of any on the board against both ideas. He touted previous boards’ records managing a utility with $11 billion in assets, more than 3,000 employees, and strong credit ratings.

“I don’t think we need to do this,” Kelley said. “I serve on a lot of corporate boards, a lot of them with millions of shareholders. I have never once heard any of these corporate boards that I’ve sat on have citizens to be heard, or stockholders to be heard. … I don’t think that’s a business practice that most people adhere to, and I’m here to make this thing run as a business and not a department of the city.”

Kelley later voted to support both of Nirenberg’s motions after board members introduced amendments to reexamine both public comments and video streams after six months.

Other board members seemed to have more nuanced views on how CPS Energy should proceed.

Trustee Janie Gonzalez, CEO and co-founder of Webhead, said she was in favor of improving public input and accessibility, but said some “challenges” include the time and resources needed to livestream, which reaches only those with internet access. She also expressed concern about how having meetings recorded might affect the board’s deliberation.

“One of the business things we need to be mindful of is that as trustees, we might feel constrained in individual approach to debate or decision-making. I want to make sure as we move on these that we’re not not feeling free to express our feelings without worrying about sound bites being exploited.”

Trustee Willis Mackey, former superintendent of Judson Independent School District, said the board should consider whether to spend money on video equipment in its current location before its pending move to its new headquarters, currently under construction. He also said the board should be sure to impose time restrictions and other limits on public comment “to limit a lot of things so we can conduct the business of CPS [Energy].”

“When you start putting this together, there’s going to be a lot of things that come into play,” Mackey said. “There’s going to be politics, there’s going to be back-biting, there’s going to be show-stopping.”

As part of the decision, the board tasked board Chair John Steen and Gonzalez to review recommendations on the best technology to use for video streaming and Steen and Mackey to develop rules for public comment.

The decisions drew praise from some advocates for increased public input and transparency around the municipally owned electric and gas utility’s decision-making process. Ahead of the vote, the chair of the utility’s Citizens Advisory Committee recommended implementing livestreaming but stopped short of saying CPS Energy’s meetings should include public comments.

In a letter to the board, Robert Romeo, the committee chair, said public comments at board meetings “would be a one-way form of communication that would provide limited engagement as compared to the current process.”

City Councilman John Courage (D9), a frequent presence at CPS Energy and SAWS meetings, called the decisions “an excellent move” and something he had recommended to Steen more than a year ago.

“I hope it remains permanent,” Courage said. “I understand the concern about making sure it’ll work because it’s something that they haven’t done, but I think that when you look at all of the other agencies in the city that represent the public, they almost all have public input, they all allow that to be broadcast in the some way that the public can see, and I’m so glad that CPS [Energy] has stood up and said, ‘Now it’s time for us to do the same.’”

Mario Bravo, Texas outreach specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund and chair of the Environmental Stakeholders Group that meets quarterly with CPS Energy to discuss sustainability issues, praised the board’s actions. The group was instrumental in pushing the board to adopt more transparency measures.

“Increasing transparency and opportunities for public participation are issues that will help CPS Energy better serve all citizens,” Bravo said in an email. “I want to thank the full board for voting in support of these measures, and the mayor specifically for putting them on the agenda and championing them at today’s meeting.”

Terry Burns, a retired physician and chair of the local Alamo Group of the Sierra Club, also said the move is “huge step forward.”

“Some of the details they were talking about may make it less than I hoped for, but I’m optimistic that we will get public input into these meetings finally, after years of requesting,” Burns said.

At Monday’s meeting, CPS Energy executives also discussed improved financial outlooks for the remainder of its fiscal year.

After savings from depreciation and higher-than-expected interest earnings, stronger wholesale revenue selling power onto the state grid with lower fuel costs, refinancing of debt, and higher-than-expected local energy sales in March, officials revised their projected net income in the current fiscal year from $2.1 million to $28.7 million, said Gary Gold, vice president of corporate services and assistant treasurer.

That’s welcome news to many CPS Energy officials after a massive drop from its most recent fiscal year’s net income of $139 million, a result driven by the utility’s power plants’ strong performance during periods of high electricity prices on the state grid.

Gold and Chief Financial Officer Delores Lenzy-Jones said the utility’s staff remains committed to finding an additional $15 million in savings this fiscal year and hope to net $43.7 million by the time it ends on Jan. 31, 2020.

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