The Georgia Public Services Commission (PSC) voted last Tuesday to again delay action on a motion that would forbid energy industry lobbyists and others from participating in ex parte communications with commissioners.
As originally authored by Commissioner Angela Speir, the open hearing process rule would restrict any party involved in a case from communicating with a commissioner without other parties to the case being present or having the opportunity to respond, and without members of the public being able to know what was said. Since its introduction earlier this year Speir’s proposal has been modified to allow ex parte communication while commissioners are gathering evidence for a case, but disallowing it during the deliberation stage of the process.
While the rule changes would apply to any party to an issue before the PSC, supporters have said it is designed to restrict behind-closed-doors conversations among commissioners and lobbyists from the industry they police. Georgia is among a handful of states where utility regulators are allowed to participate in ex parte communications.
The PSC on July 3 approved 3-2 a modification, proposed by commissioner H. Doug Everett, that added language expanding the definition of “party” to include “any person knowingly acting on behalf of or in concert with a party to a proceeding.” Everett said the change strengthened the rule, but Speir said the new language was redundant and part of a delaying tactic by the commission. The proposal will not come before the commission again until at least August; commission rules mandate that changes to the wording of motions go to the public for 30 days of formal comment.
In a statement issued after the vote, Speir said the commission had previously sent her proposal out for formal comment twice and held two public hearings on the topic in the six months since she brought it forward. Further delaying action on the rule was “inexcusable,” Speir said.
“Given the importance of having a rule in place, delay for any reason is unfortunate. But, in this case, there is not even a good reason for the delay. It appears to simply be a stalling tactic by those who oppose creating an open process,” Speir said.
“We have already missed the opportunity to have the rule in place in time to cover the Georgia Power Co. Integrated Resource Plan — a case that will set the course for electric infrastructure planning in Georgia for years to come. Over the next several months, the Public Service Commission will be deciding other critical matters, including certification of new electric plants, a rate case for Georgia Power (the company is asking to increase its base rates for next year by over $400 million) and a capacity supply plan for Atlanta Gas Light Co. The proposed rule would assure the public and the parties that the commission’s process will be open and transparent, that all parties are treated fairly, and that the decisions will be based solely on the evidence in the record rather than on private conversations,” Speir said.
When the PSC first took up the issue earlier this year, Commissioner Stan Wise said the proposed rules were “ineffective, unworkable, unenforceable and are discriminatory.”
“My biggest concern, however, is that the rules chill free speech. But of course, that is why they are being proposed. It is the hope of consumer-liberalists that these rules will reduce the influence of businesses and utilities. That is what this is about. That and the presumption that parties to a contested case are dishonest. Not just executives and attorneys but by their association every employee of said company,” Wise said.
“I believe, as some courts have ruled, that bans on ex parte communications can be so broad they can impair an agency’s ability to perform its mission effectively…This populist pandering is bad for public policy.
Commissioners are elected to six-year terms on the Georgia PSC. Speir, whose first term expires next year, and Wise, who was elected last year to his third term, are both Republicans.
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