ATLANTA - The Public Service Commission, in a move both praised as a step toward open government and derided as a blow to representative democracy, clamped down Tuesday on private conversations during contested rate cases.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to prohibit parties involved in such a case from holding discussions with members of the PSC after all of the evidence has been presented.
"This is historical," Commissioner Angela Spear of Duluth said after the panel's final vote on an issue that has occupied the commission for months. "It's important to the people of Georgia. This rule is long overdue."
Spear introduced the so-called "ex parte" rule, which the vast majority of states already follow, to get rid of a system that she said allows full-time lobbyists for well-heeled utilities to attempt to sway commissioners outside of the public eye.
"This is going to make sure we have open and accountable government," said commission Chairman Bobby Baker, another strong supporter of banning ex parte talks between regulators and the companies they regulate. "It's going to require folks to put up their cases in this room before everyone."
But Commissioner Stan Wise, the lone dissenter in Tuesday's vote, said the new rule will put a "gag order" on the PSC at the very time commissioners need all the information they can get to make good decisions.
He warned that without a free flow of information, more cases are likely to be litigated and fewer settled.
"The people of this state elected us to deliberate," he said. "(But) we're putting bars on our windows to keep the public out of our deliberations."
Wise accused supporters of the ex parte rule of caving in to public pressure fanned by news stories and editorials.
But Spear said she began pushing for the change well before newspapers started writing about the issue.
"Doing the right thing is not about putting your finger in the wind," she said.
Commissioner Doug Everett also denied that he was swayed by public opinion. In fact, he said he voted for the rule in spite of strident e-mails from members of the public supporting it, including some containing profanity.
"Even preachers would curse us out," he said.
Spears's original proposal would have banned all behind-the-scenes discussions, not just those occurring after all testimony in a contested case had been concluded.
But she said she was satisfied with the final version of the rule.
"The rule is not perfect, but it's a significant step," she said.
The rule will take effect in about three weeks.
Baker called upon all commissioners to cooperate in carrying it out.
"I don't want to have problems with this," he said. "I think it's a simple rule. We can all make it work."