Public Service Commission goes to work on banning secret talks

ATLANTA - Georgia's Public Service Commission Tuesday took the first step toward prohibiting commissioners and utility officials from discussing rate cases behind closed doors.

The PSC voted 4-1 to begin crafting a rule to ban "ex parte'' conversations between regulators and the parties involved in contested cases. The practice already is prohibited in 48 states, Georgia and Louisiana being the exceptions.

"We are somewhat the last of the Mohicans,'' said Commissioner Angela Speir of Duluth, who spearheaded the proposal. "We can take the bull by the horns and work together to make a rule that is workable and fair, and that ensures transparency in the process.''

Commissioners' practice of engaging in private conversations with utility lobbyists was an issue during last year's PSC election campaigns, with two of the five seats up for grabs.

Challengers in both races called for reining in such closed-door discussions as a way to promote open government and public confidence in the PSC.

During a brief discussion before Tuesday's vote, commission Chairman Bobby Baker of Atlanta said limiting all communications to the public record would ensure each commissioner gets the same information before making decisions that directly affect millions of Georgians.

"It's time that the commission develop a reasonable rule that will help ensure that all decision makers have access to relevant information in deciding cases,'' he said.

"Other states have done it, and so can we.''

But Commissioner Stan Wise of Marietta, the only member of the PSC who voted against Speir's proposal, said shutting off private conversations would deprive both commissioners and utility officials of their free speech rights.

He accused Speir of "populist pandering'' in bringing the proposal to the commission.

Wise, who was re-elected last November with 55 percent of the vote, said Georgia voters have the right to turn out of office commissioners they believe are not pursuing the right policies.

Likewise, he said, the General Assembly could pass a law banning ex parte communications by members of the PSC if lawmakers thought private conversations a problem.

"It is not your job to play 'speech police,' '' Wise told Speir.

Developing a rule to govern communications between commissioners and parties in contested cases is expected to take months, and Tuesday's vote wasn't necessarily indicative of whether the rule would win approval.

While Speir and Baker are strong advocates of banning private conversations, the other two commissioners who voted for Speir's motion were less committal.

Prior to Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Doug Everett of Albany sought an opinion from the attorney general's office on whether banning ex parte communications would be legal.

In a memo to the PSC, the assistant attorney general assigned to the commission wrote that it wouldn't violate any laws.

Commissioner Chuck Eaton, an Atlanta Republican who defeated former Democratic Commissioner David Burgess last fall in a runoff, said he was worried a ban on closed-door talks might throw up a bureaucratic barrier that would get in the way of efficient decision making.

"This needs to be vetted thoroughly,'' Eaton said. "I will be watching closely that we don't make the process too bureaucratic.''

But Speir said abolishing a policy that allows utility executives access to members of the PSC that is not granted to the general public is more important than fears that the commission might be creating a more cumbersome decision-making process.

"This is not about bureaucracy,'' she said. "It's about fundamental fairness.''