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Secrecy rule likely to signal Public Service Commission's future

An under-publicized piece of the fallout from last year's elections was a potential shift in the political dynamics governing Georgia's Public Service Commission.

The extent of that shift could start to become clear this week when the commission takes up a plan to prohibit utility officials from going behind closed doors to discuss contested rate cases with commissioners.

A ban on "ex parte" conversations between the regulators and regulated would align Georgia with 48 other states that already have such rules in effect.

To good government groups and consumer organizations, the proposal strikes a blow for transparency in government.

"We need to have a process people can have confidence in," said Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

Refusing to cede the high ground, utility representatives say freedom of speech is at stake.

"We think every citizen, whether they work for a utility or not, should have the opportunity to speak with an elected official," Georgia Power Co. spokesman John Sell said.

The PSC voted two months ago to begin shaping Commissioner Angela Speir's proposal into a commission rule.

Speir, a Duluth Republican, and fellow Commissioner Bobby Baker often have joined forces in various cases to come before the commission, only to be opposed by commissioners Doug Everett and Stan Wise.

Democrat David Burgess generally served as the swing vote on the five-member panel.

But Burgess was narrowly defeated last fall by Republican Chuck Eaton, leading many PSC observers to conclude that a new era might be on the way.

Indeed, both Eaton and Everett sided with Speir and Baker in the March vote on the ex parte ban in a lopsided 4-1 decision, rare for such a major issue.

But one vote doesn't necessarily make a trend.

While Baker and Speir have voiced strong support for the ex parte rule, Everett and Eaton have been more cautious. In fact, both have been working on changes they'd like to see in the rule.

Speir said her proposal has struck a nerve with the public, at least among those who pay attention to the PSC. She said she has received more than 200 e-mails and dozens of phone messages from people supporting the plan.

"The people of Georgia have spoken very loudly, clearly and overwhelmingly," she said. "They want to know how their business is conducted and that it's conducted in a fair and open manner."

With Eaton and Everett apparently on board, Commissioner Stan Wise has been left to wage a one-man fight against the ex parte rule.

He said restricting communication between commissioners and the parties involved in rate cases means he and his colleagues will have less information on which to base their decisions.

"I need to make sure I have all the information I can have," he said. "That's my role as a duly elected official."

Sell said the nature of rate cases makes ex parte communications a practical way for Georgia Power officials to give commissioners information about the utility's proposals.

"The complexity of the issues we deal with often necessitates the need for education that can best be done in a question-and-answer format," he said.

But Bozarth said the same reasoning is a good argument for not giving utility lobbyists the advantage of private access to commissioners.

"These issues are so complex you don't have a lot of outside groups that can come up with the research to counter the utilities," he said. "These debates need to be as open as possible."

Wise was used to prevailing under the old makeup of the PSC, joined frequently by Everett, a Republican from Albany, and often by Burgess.

Now, however, Wise said he seems to be on his own because of an aggressive campaign by the news media in favor of the ex parte rule.

"Can my colleagues be swayed by an unfair, unreasonable press? Sure they can," he said.

For her part, Speir is concerned by the attempts of Everett and Eaton to amend her proposal.

"My hope is that my colleagues will support a rule that is meaningful and not watered down," she said.

The commission is expected to approve at least some changes in the proposed rule this week. As a result, it will have to be put out for another 30 days of public comment.

A final vote isn't likely until July.

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com. 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.