As published in Public Utilities Fortnightly Magazine, February 2017
Many jobs are difficult, and some are extremely challenging. There is nothing easy about being a commercial fisherman, firefighter, or law enforcement professional.
I sometimes am tempted to kvetch about the less fulfilling aspects of my job as President & CEO of the American Public Power Association. Then I think about the lineworkers who work for my utility members. They have to go out in the wake of severe weather events and labor under very adverse conditions for days on end to restore electric service. So I know I have it
Unfortunately, it has now become necessary to remind the public that FERC commissioners, state public utility commissioners and local governing bodies that regulate utilities have demanding jobs as well, and deserve our respect. This is true whether they work with IOUs, coops and/or public power, helping provide essential services such as power, water, telecommunications, and transportation.
I recently heard from my old friend Chuck Gray, former Executive Director of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. He has stepped out of retirement briefly to address an important issue. It’s the breakdown in public discourse in some state public utility commission proceedings and the need to return to constructive dialogue through civil interactions and legal due process. I am with Chuck on this.
The right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy and is at the core of the First Amendment. It is a part of the fabric of this nation. When unproductive and misdirected, however, protests are more of a hindrance than a help, and can abridge the rights of those to whom those protests are directed.
We often take government employees, including these commissioners, boards and city council members, for granted. These men and women have agreed to take on positions that put them squarely in the middle of important and controversial issues.
They preside over a vital sector of the American economy. Their individual and collective contributions drive us forward on the path toward a brighter (pun intended) future. They strive to serve in the public interest to improve the quality and price of utility services, and to ensure that such services are provided to all customers under rates and conditions that are fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory.
Can you support our federal, state and local utility commissioners and government employees and yet not support their rulings on specific issues? Certainly. Anyone who knows me knows that I have vehemently disagreed with many FERC decisions over the years, and I have never hesitated to take FERC commissioners to task publicly when I did so. But I never impugned their good faith in reaching their decisions, or the integrity of the Commission itself. You can engage in the process to be heard and hold decision makers accountable for their actions in the public forum without crossing the line. Regardless of what you think of their positions and decisions on various issues, we all have the obligation to respect these institutions. As well as the personal integrity of the men and women who serve on these decision-making bodies, unless there is hard evidence of actual wrongdoing.
Why is it necessary to say this now? Because in recent years, those who oppose the rulings of such state and federal commissions have engaged in harassment of the officials who serve on them. It is out of bounds to harass these officials and worse yet, their families and their homes. Or to invade their apartment buildings and camp out at their front doors. Earlier this year, one sign held by protestors in front of then-FERC commissioner Tony Clark’s home read, “Your neighbor, Tony Clark, FERC Commissioner, Destroys Communities & the Climate.”
Former Commissioner David Noble of the Nevada Public Utilities Commission was personally attacked over the course of several months during a net metering proceeding. He was labeled as being “in the pocket of utilities,” an accusation that he denied vigorously. Several people and groups called his integrity into question, without showing any evidence of misconduct.
Nevada is an open-carry state. At one Nevada PUC meeting, commissioners had to be ushered out when observers carrying firearms attempted to enter the meeting. Observers were also holding a flyer with the home addresses of Noble and his fellow commissioners. Governor Brian Sandoval had to issue a statement calling for “a civil debate on this important energy issue.” It is understandable, indeed appropriate, that people are passionate about sharing their views with these utility regulators. After all, commission decisions affect the economy, quality of life, operations and efficiency of homes, businesses, and institutions within their jurisdiction. Commissioners must consider issues carefully, based on the record, and be held fully accountable if they or their staff members do engage in misconduct.
However, to contribute constructively to the processes of these regulatory bodies, individuals need to follow a few simple rules. Focus on the issues rather than the person(s); engage in a serious and thoughtful exchange of views via the appropriate forums; deal with the arguments of others by rebutting them on their merits; identify the sources of disagreements, seek common ground; and avoid physical, verbal or emotional violence. Demonizing or implicitly threatening a public servant should have no place in public discourse.
I am a long-time regulatory lawyer and a person who is passionate about the issues that my association supports. I know what it feels like to advocate for a position I think is right before a commission, litigate it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in the end come out on the losing side. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, for sure.
Nevertheless, I believe that we must use the processes in place to advocate for our positions and respect the public servants making the decisions. We all likely will continue to disagree with some specific decisions of regulatory commissions and other governing bodies. However, we must remember that regulators are people just like us. Apply the Golden Rule, and treat them as we ourselves would like to be treated.