The following is a press release sent from the Steve Oppenheimer for PSC campaign. In the interests of the educated voter, we have linked to columns from both Mr. Oppenheimer and his opponent, current PSC Commissioner Chuck Eaton. Mr. Eaton’s column can be found here.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned but if I pay to get something done, I assume I have the freedom to check up on the work or at least see evidence of it. Georgia taxpayers are funding a multi-million dollar state agency with 54 full time employees, so it seems like we should have access to the work our money is producing. But this is not the case with the current Georgia Public Service Commission.
The PSC is probably one of the most powerful state agencies because it regulates our utility rates, energy production and Georgia’s vision for our energy future –– including the vital issue of energy independence, and most people know nothing about it.
The few Georgians who do know about the commission and try to find out what they have done in our names and with our money –– by asking to see transcripts of meetings, for example –– are faced with a daunting operational and financial brick wall.
There is no transparency at the PSC, and that’s just not right.
You would think the incumbent, career politicians elected to the commission would rail against this complete lack of transparency, but apparently it’s better to keep out of the spotlight and away from full accountability.
Here’s the way the PSC, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to treat the folks paying the tab: All meeting minutes posted online for the public to access can only be copied at $3.50 per page, up from the open records rate of $0.10 a page. There are few audio clips or videos of meetings on the website and the PSC routinely publishes draft agreements between it and utility companies the night before before public hearings, giving people little –– if any –– time to prepare for the hearings. There are even provisions in place that enable the Commission to increase fuel rates during a two-year period without having any public hearings.
To put things into perspective, I’ll offer up a comparison. The Savannah City Council –– a smaller public entity, in charge of regulating a city, not the entire state –– airs video footage of their meetings on public access television, post the videos on their website and make the meeting agendas available before the meeting and makes meeting minutes are available afterwards.
This immense gap in transparency isn’t the only problem at the PSC, but it has definitely played a role in the steady downhill slide of the practices of some of the commissioners. How are ratepayers supposed to hold our public officials responsible for their actions when we don’t even know what actions they are taking?
There is no accountability either for matters that affect every Georgia citizen, and that also is just wrong.
To make matters worse, four years ago the Consumers’ Utility Counsel –– a consumer advocacy group that represented homeowners and small businesses for more than 30 years in cases when utility giants wanted to raise rates –– was defunded by the Governor’s office. Since the counsel lost it’s funding, we have paid more than $4 billion in rate increases.
With consumer protection gone and transparency nonexistent, some commissioners have gotten cozy with their friends at the utility companies.
And I mean very cozy.
An investigation by some savvy journalists at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that during the last five years the current commission has taken nearly $750,000 in donations from utility company insiders and lobbyists –– the very people the PSC is charged with regulating. Incumbent Commissioner Chuck Eaton tipped the scales, receiving nearly 86 percent of his campaign contributions from utility company affiliates.
While these numbers are shocking, the truth is that they don’t even factor in lobbyist gifts. House Speaker David Ralston’s proposed lobbyist gift ban would help stem the flow, but as it currently stands Eaton’s lobbyist gifts disclosure report to the State Ethics Commission showed he has accepted gifts ranging from football game tickets, dinners and golf trips, all the way to some $150 smoked hams. That’s not to say that he is alone, many other law makers have accepted gifts as well –– the point is it’s a problem in more ways than one.
The fact that lobbyists and utility company representatives are bankrolling campaigns, could be swaying some commissioners’ decisions. The money, gifts and lack of accountability could be the winning trifecta contributing to the PSC’s reluctance to abide by Georgia’s new open record law, something that took effect several weeks ago and requires the Commission to make certain utility company document –– formerly stamped “trade secret” –– available to the public.
Like I said, we are facing some serious problems. But serious doesn’t equate to insurmountable.
We can restore a power balance to once again work for the people of Georgia, all it takes is the will to act.
We must demand more from the elected officials who are supposed to represent and protect us. I propose a Public Service Commission that works for the people of Georgia, one that does not take contributions from the executives of companies it regulates and has something as simple as meeting minutes or audio and video from meetings posted online. We deserve a Commission that wants to fight to restore an essential voice for ratepayers, the Consumers’ Utility Counsel, and one that follows a strict lobbyist gift ban. That means no meals, no golf and no smoked ham.
The first and more important step is voting this November to bring a new, independent, common sense voice to the Commission.