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Utility regulators shut out public

Who does Angela Speir think she is? And this guy Bobby Baker ought to know better.

Speir and Baker have set out to destroy a venerable Georgia tradition. They want to put the kibosh on closed-door meetings between regulated utilities and their regulators on the Public Service Commission. What is wrong with Speir and Baker? They're both members of the commission. They know how things work.

Everything was just fine on the PSC until S&B came up with this nutty idea to restrict most ex parte meetings. Ex parte? Don't leave. We're going to tell you what ex parte means. Loosely defined, ex parte, a Latin term, means "in the interest of one side only."

An ex parte meeting is a private thing, just a little members-only chat to work things out between, say, a utility company and an elected utilities commissioner.

A one-sided ex parte meeting at the PSC goes like this: A Georgia Power vice president goes into a PSC member's office, closes the door and outlines a deal on how much you and I need to pay for electric power to keep the big bucks rolling in to the Southern Company.

The utility guy's time is valuable. Under the present system, he doesn't have to hang around while some consumer wacko sits in the corner and rants about high rates and strapped ratepayers.

Ex parte meetings save time and money and spare commissioners from having to endure hours of boring arguments. Georgia is on the cutting edge of ex parte proceedings. Louisiana is the only other state where utility regulators allow private ex parte discussions just like ours.

Other states engage in complicated stuff like advertising meetings and making certain all sides are represented in rate cases. What a stupid waste.

So why is Georgia determined to give up its leadership in the ex parte field? It's that woman's idea. Angela Speir started this.

She must think just anybody ought to have the right to know what's going on with their utility bills. She must have been taken in by all that government-sunshine talk. She's only been on the commission since 2003.

She doesn't really understand the system. Some folks say Angela is a regular Hillary, always poking her nose into matters that have already been settled. Bobby Baker has been on the Public Service Commission since 1993. He should know the ropes by now.

Bobby is usually a get-along kind of guy. If the GOP-controlled Legislature is going to erect a statue of Democrat Zell Miller, it ought to put up one of Bobby, too. In some ways, he is a more historic figure. When Bobby took his seat on the PSC 14 years ago, he became the first Republican since Reconstruction to be elected to statewide office.

Bobby has heard this ex parte fuss before, back in the 1990s when Democratic PSC members Bobby Rowan and Bobby Pafford fought it out over the same issue. (Did you ever notice how many Bobbys are involved in state politics?) Rowan's anti-ex parte side finally prevailed, sort of. Then the utilities quietly showed their disapproval, and the ex parte issue simply disappeared. The secret meetings continued.

This time, the fight to eliminate undisclosed ex parte sessions seems more serious. Lucky for all the utility shareholders, PSC member Stan Wise has come out swinging as their champion.

Stan says these people who want to stop closed meetings are just a bunch of "consumer-liberalists," intent on reducing the influence of utilities.

Stan is so right. That is exactly what these con-libs have in mind. "Populist pandering," Stan calls it.

"The ex parte rules being considered are ineffective, unworkable, unenforceable and are discriminatory," Stan tells us. "My biggest concern, however, is that the rules chill free speech."

Right on, Stan! Nothing chills free speech like advertising a closed-door meeting and inviting adversaries to sit in and even participate. Anything can happen.

The suits may even get too scared to speak up. A Georgia Power presenter could barely mumble "$300 million rate adjustment" before some little old lady in tennis shoes starts yelling at him. That is just not the way things are done in Georgia - or in Louisiana.

Under the proposed rules, Stan warns, "Georgia Power could not speak with us off the record," but anti-nuclear groups could come down and give out propaganda without any restrictions. It is just not fair, is it, Stan?

Some newspapers have criticized Stan for his support of closed, unannounced meetings and for seeming to be in bed with the utilities.

So what? Winning more than 60 percent of the vote, Stan was elected to a third six-year term on the commission last November. Stan doesn't care what the newspapers say. He knows how smart Georgia voters are.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at shipp1@bellsouth.net. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.