The general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority announced his resignation Tuesday, setting off a potential battle over the future of the enormous Central Texas wholesale electricity and water supplier.
Tom Mason, the general manager since 2007, will leave the agency effective July 1. No reason was given for his resignation, and LCRA board chairman Tim Timmerman said that the soonest he could be replaced would be at a June 15 board meeting.
State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay and the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said that he had been "getting rumblings" about a Mason move, though it came sooner than expected. He praised Mason as "probably the most responsive to the Legislature" of any LCRA general manager. "We're going to miss him," he said.
Fraser said that he, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, would push for a thorough search for a new general manager. "The three senators are requesting that this be a very extensive search," Fraser said, adding that while the LCRA could name someone internally to serve in an interim capacity, ultimately "my wish is that we find somebody from the outside that's not connected to the LCRA." The senators aim to meet with the board chairman next week, Fraser said. While they do not want to "micromanage" the process, he said, they want to be very involved.
However, Rep. Allan Ritter, R-Nederland, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the LCRA should hire a new general manager quickly. "My words of wisdom to the board of the LCRA [are] — don't drag your feet," he said.
The LCRA — a state government entity, though it gets revenue not through state taxes but by charging fees for its services — has recently seen a number of its electricity customers pull out. The city of Georgetown decided this spring not to renew its contract with the LCRA. Other entities not renewing include the Central Texas Electrical Cooperative, the city of Boerne, the city of Seguin, the Fayette Electric Cooperative, Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative, Kerrville Public Utility Board and the San Bernard Electric Cooperative. However, the LCRA says that 33 out of 43 customers have renewed so far, including its largest customer, the Pedernales Electric Cooperative.
"LCRA faces a lot of challenges ahead, and there are concerns that the customers are expressing that must be addressed," said Mark Rose, who was general manager of the LCRA during the 1990s and now heads the Bastrop-based Bluebonnet Electric Coop, an LCRA customer. "The selection that the board makes for the new general manager is crucial." The situation represents, he said, "as significant a leadership challenge as LCRA has faced in many, many decades."
Some customers didn't see Mason's resignation coming. "It was a surprise," said David Vaughn, the city manager for Burnet, which is a water and electric customer of the river authority. "Honestly, I'm not sure what to think at this point." He added that his direct dealings with Mason had been limited.
The recent electricity pullouts, Vaughn said, may have caused the LCRA to become more competitive. "I believe overall it's forced LCRA to be more of a business on the power side," he said. The authority, he said, has had to "really look at their costs," and try to operate more effectively and efficiently. "I wish they'd do that with water," Vaughn added.
The LCRA's biggest challenges include creating a long-term plan for managing its water supplies, which include Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan.
During Mason's tenure, the LCRA also recently endured some contentious battles over transmission lines, which an arm of the agency builds.
Mason began working at LCRA in 1987 and became the organization's general counsel in 1999, before becoming general manager in 2007. In a statement, he praised employees, and said that he plans "to do nothing but rest for the next three or four months.”
“This is an organization that has always tackled tough projects — from protecting the region during floods to providing clean drinking water during droughts,” Mason said.
Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement: "Tom Mason brought a balanced and highly professional perspective to his leadership of LCRA that valued protecting the environment as well as providing reliable water and energy service to LCRA customers."
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