A culture of secrecy persists at CPS Energy

December 4, 2009

By Scott Stroud
San Antonio Express-News

After word leaked out in October that building two new nuclear plants might cost as much as $4 billion more than had been publicly projected, Mayor Julián Castro expressed dismay at the city-owned utility’s penchant for secrecy.

"The CPS Energy culture needs to shift towards greater transparency," he said.

He was right, of course, but the culture isn’t shifting at breakneck speed. At this week’s CPS board meeting, copies of the investigative post-mortem on what actually happened were passed out to Castro and the other board members behind closed doors and then rounded up afterward.

All the public received was a three-page, five-whereas resolution outlining the fallout at the agency and not explaining the reasoning behind it much at all. The board-approved resolution described a "good faith belief" on the part of CPS executives that the revised estimate wasn’t formal. Everyone involved was absolved of "malicious intent."

That’s all well and good, but no explanation was offered for Steve Bartley’s resignation last week as interim general manager, nor that of Robert Temple as secretary to the board and a member of its nuclear team.

Temple’s departure was announced, but not explained, somewhere after the whereases. The reinstatement of two suspended executives, Michael Kotara and Jim Nesrsta, was explained – and I use the word loosely – in a single paragraph apiece.

The mayor has said more than once that he favors full disclosure, but he pulled back after he and other board members saw the first version. That’s likely because releasing it then would have given him a fair amount of heartburn.

On Thursday, however, Castro spokesman Jaime Castillo said the mayor supports making both versions of the CPS report public.

That should happen as quickly as possible. Until it does, the mayor’s push to oust CPS board Chairwoman Aurora Geis and board member Stephen Hennigan must be put on hold. To begin with, forcibly removing them from the board is legally problematic. Doing so before airing the results of the investigation would only compound the agency’s credibility problem.

As for Castro’s heartburn, the draft report criticizes him for meddling by meeting with NRG, CPS Energy’s partner on the nuclear project, outside the purview of the board. More problematic from the mayor’s perspective, the report chastises Castro’s chief of staff, Robbie Greenblum, for being less than forthcoming about how he learned of the higher cost estimate.

That caused a dustup because Greenblum, in his interview with the report’s authors, apparently hadn’t been asked that question. City Attorney Michael Bernard demanded that they reinterview Greenblum and draft a new version, which hasn’t been delivered to the board.

Perhaps sensing that the first draft might embarrass the mayor, Hennigan called for immediate full disclosure in a memo to fellow board members. The mayor has now moved to call his bluff, though he probably should have done so sooner.

Geis, meanwhile, has only added to the credibility problem at CPS, telling the Express-News this week that the mayor never asked her to resign. His office quickly produced a voicemail she left on his phone in which she discussed that very request.

All this leaves us with the same mess we’ve been in for quite some time: Trust in CPS is a shambles, the credibility problem seems to be spreading, and the shift to a culture of transparency can’t happen soon enough.


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