New data from a poll of Bexar County voters shows the approval rating of San Antonio’s electric utility continues to drop as it works to manage both natural disasters and crises of its own making.
More than half the respondents who participated in the latest Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll in September replied that they disapprove of how CPS Energy is managing the multitude of issues that the city-owned utility is facing. Results of the poll were released Tuesday.
The latest thumbs-down from Bexar County residents marks the second consecutive poll of registered voters in which CPS Energy’s approval rating has been below 50% following February’s winter storm. Forty-four percent of respondents approved of CPS Energy’s performance, while 52% disapproved. By contrast, the September 2020 poll saw 69% approval of CPS Energy.
In an email statement sent to the San Antonio Report Friday, CPS Energy spokeswoman Christine Patmon said they were disappointed by the results of the poll, but that it was not surprising given all the events the company has experienced over the past two years.
“I want to assure our customers that we have not let the challenges of 2020 and 2021 deter the good work we are doing to move our community and industry forward,” she said.
In the past 18 months, CPS Energy has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, the near-collapse of the Texas grid during the February storm, and criticism for its communications during the freeze. Since then, lawsuits have been filed both by it and against it, and complaints against executive leaders have arisen.
In response to these challenges — particularly the fallout from the winter freeze — Mayor Ron Nirenberg convened a six-member task force led by former District 8 councilman Reed Williams charged with studying and reporting what CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System could do to better prepare for the future.
Nirenberg also created the Municipal Utilities Committee, a council committee chaired by Councilman John Courage (D9) and consisting of Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) and Councilwomen Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), and Ana Sandoval (D7). Its goal is to expand oversight of both CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System.
Exacerbated by the pandemic and storm, CPS Energy has also come under severe financial duress. The utility was slapped with a $1 billion tab from energy costs during the winter storm, which it is fighting in court. In an effort to meet its bottom line for the upcoming fiscal year, the utility is now moving toward what could be a double-digit rate increase and has resumed disconnecting customers who are past due — a practice it has abstained from since the pandemic began in March 2020.
The utility convened a 21-member Rate Advisory Committee, also chaired by Williams, to discuss different rate structures and to give CPS Energy’s board informed input on rates.
But is the utility actually taking the counsel of the Municipal Utilities Committee or Rate Advisory Committee? Recent developments indicate the utility is forging ahead with plans to disconnect customers and raise rates despite input from both committees.
Just days before the resumption of CPS Energy’s residential disconnections, MUC committee members challenged the energy utility to emulate SAWS’ practice of automatically enrolling customers in payment plans to prevent cutting off past-due customers. Despite these appeals, CPS Energy’s leaders told the San Antonio Report they would stick to their existing plans.
The utility also is proceeding with its rate increase before getting input from the rate committee, which is still in the discussion and education phases.
Making these decisions is CEO and President Paula Gold-Williams, who has led the utility since 2015. Prior to joining CPS Energy staff in 2004, Gold-Williams served as regional controller for Time Warner and as the vice president of finance for Luby’s. The executive has recently come under fire for her treatment of staff, according to documents obtained by KSAT-TV’s investigative team.
After the utility’s chief legal officer, Carolyn Shellman, and both its deputy general counsels resigned earlier this summer, KSAT secured a copy of internal complaints they filed against Gold-Williams. The one-page complaint accused Gold-Williams of governing the utility “via her senior leadership team with fear and intimidation.”
Reports also found that on Feb. 17, while San Antonio was experiencing widespread power outages amid sub-freezing temperatures, Gold-Williams and other senior CPS Energy leaders had drafted a letter of support for her and management despite widely criticized communication efforts that have led to wrongful death lawsuits filed against the utility. While the letter was never sent out to the public, customers have criticized CPS Energy for focusing on appearances during the storm rather than customers.
Over the course of her tenure, some have questioned if Gold-Williams is right for the position of CEO and president as the utility fights to regain public approval.
CPS Energy’s emailed statement to the San Antonio Report did not answer a question regarding Gold-Williams’ leadership.
Gold-Williams isn’t the only CPS Energy leader who has come under scrutiny in recent days. More complaints unearthed by KSAT show that CPS Energy Chief Operating Officer Fred Bonewell was accused of making ethnically insensitive comments and of overspending company funds on luxuries like catered lunches prior to his promotion in June. Bonewell previously served as the chief safety and security officer.
In 2019, the San Antonio Report found Bonewell and John Bonnin, vice president of energy supply and market operations, had spent more than $7,000 to travel to Tel Aviv, Israel, to visit CyberGym, an IT training center.
While trustees Ed Kelley and Janie Gonzalez, and Courage, who sits on the MUC, told the San Antonio Report they still have faith in CPS Energy leadership, Bravo said it could very well be time for a change.
“There’s a culture at CPS Energy among the leadership team that fails to recognize they’re a public utility and the responsibilities that come with that,” Bravo said. “There’s a resistance to change I’m very concerned about.”
Bravo pointed to a past example in which leadership at the utility was pushed out for making critical errors: CPS Energy’s failed partnership in a nuclear power plant that was never built cost the utility almost $400 million and led to the resignation of CPS Energy interim General Manager Steve Bartley in 2009.
“This time we owe $1 billion and we haven’t seen any changes in leadership whatsoever,” Bravo said.
Behind the criticisms of CPS Energy is a misunderstanding of how complicated the company actually is, Kelley told the San Antonio Report Thursday.
Kelley noted that CPS Energy is one of the lowest-cost utilities in the nation and credited current leadership for that. The utility’s frugality predates Gold-Williams, with CPS Energy often going years without rate increases.
Other local leaders declined to comment on current leadership, instead focusing on the direction they feel the company needs to take as a whole to win back the public’s trust.
Nirenberg said that trust can be restored by the utility first striving to address the issues it has that were compounded by the effects of the winter storm, and then by continuing to commit to both ratepayers and the environment.
“Accountability is critical as we address these issues, and I’m sure there are plenty of discussions ahead of us as the utility works to improve the resiliency and efficacy of their systems and procedures,” he said.
Pulling together the post-storm task force is an example of the accountability the city is taking to address utility issues, Nireberg said. It found CPS Energy did not keep local and emergency response leaders in the loop as officials were forced to decide where to cut power to help the state’s electrical grid from collapsing.
CPS Energy is facing challenges and the board of trustees must work to continuously address them, said Nirenberg, a trustee by virtue of his office.
“It would be inappropriate,” he said, “to discuss any potential leadership changes without first discussing them as a board.”
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