More New PSC Commissioners Coming Soon?

When Commissioners of the PSC are selected, the decisions affect all New Yorkers for years to come. On February 1, 2009, the current terms of New York PSC Chairman Garry Brown and Commissioner Patricia Acampora expire. Under the law, sitting Commissioners continue to serve after their terms expire, subject to replacement at a later time of the Governor’s choosing, or, if not replaced, they could be reappointed to new six-year terms.

Governor Paterson has given no indication of what he will do, but he will be in a position to appoint the majority of the five-member commission. See Will Governor Paterson Repurpose the Public Service Commission to Protect Consumers?

Will there be a more transparent nomination and confirmation process that fosters public scrutiny of the qualifications of PSC nominees and their vision of how they will discharge their quasi legislative functions?

The Governor missed his first opportunity to open up the process when he appointed a PSC Commissioner to fill a position that had been empty for months. The appointment was a well kept secret until the day James Larocca was confirmed by the Senate. Indeed, it occurred so fast he was still Chairman of the Board of LIPA until the next day, when he resigned that utility post. There was no opportunity for public scrutiny and discussion of the qualities the Governor was seeking in his PSC pick, no opportunity for public input, and no discussion by the Senate of the candidate’s policy preferences. See, In a New York Minute, Governor Paterson Appoints and Senate Confirms James Larocca as New PSC Commissioner.

Commissioner Larocca has an extensive background in government and the utility sector and may turn out to be an excellent choice, but his selection and the legislative confirmation process was anything but public and illustrates the problem a new coalition, New Yorkers for Fair and Affordable Utility Service seeks to change. “It’s time to put the `public’ back in the Public Service Commission” was the theme of an Op-Ed piece which appeared in the January 17, 2009 Albany Times Union, PSC, Tribune of the People. This coalition includes grass-roots, senior, environmental, good government, consumer, and media organizations and is focused on how the Governor and the senate will handle future PSC appointments.

The Governor must recognize how the state’s energy and telecom policies affect the public and the environment and select applicants committed to the public interest and a fresh look at policy direction. In recent years the PSC and its staff seem to have been more interested in rolling out a deregulation agenda than in protecting consumers. A PSC responsive to consumer interests would, in contrast, exercise the fullest measure of its powers to oversee reasonableness of cell phone contracts and cable voice services, work for affordable natural gas and electric service, reduce the impacts of our energy infrastructure on the environment, challenge bloated NYISO budgets, and investigate market power abuses. It would stop its push to implement the failed Enron deregulation model that favors producers, traders, and middlemen which brought to New York gamed, manipulated, and expensive wholesale energy markets, phony retail competition based on tax subsidies and deception, and higher, unpredictably spiking prices. It would reduce utility reliance on shutoffs as a bill collection tactic, which affect nearly a quarter million customers each year, and take meaningful instead of token steps to make energy and telecom rates more affordable to the poor.

There are few specific statutory qualifications for commissioners, other than that they not have a position with or own securities of a utility regulated by the PSC. Also, under the Public Service Law, only three of the five Commissioners can be from the same political party. A recent Buffalo News editorial calls upon the Governor to nominate a person from Western New York. See
Give Upstate a Voice: Utilities Oversight Commission Needs a Western New Yorker.

Keeping the nomination and confirmation process transparent is key. If President Obama could expose his selections for cabinet posts weeks in advance, why can’t Governor Paterson identify his proposed PSC nominees in advance?

Indeed, there is more reason to publicly vet PSC candidates than there is for ordinary executive branch appointees who serve at the Governor’s pleasure, because PSC Commissioners have six-year terms — longer than any Governor’s four-year term — designed for more independence and their quasi-legislative role. As then-Governor Franklin Roosevelt said in 1932:

When I became Governor, I found that the Public Service Commission of the State of New York had adopted the unwarranted and unsound view that its sole function was to act as an arbitrator or a court of some kind between the public on the one side and the utility corporations on the other. I thereupon laid down a principle which created horror and havoc among the Insulls and other magnates of that type.

I declared that the Public Service Commission is not a mere judicial body to act solely as umpire between complaining consumer or the complaining investor on the one hand, and the great public utility system on the other hand. I declared that, as the agent of the Legislature, the Public Service Commission had, and has, a definitely delegated authority and duty to act as the agent of the public themselves; that it is not a mere arbitrator as between the people and the public utilities, but was created for the purpose of seeing that the public utilities do two things: first, give adequate service; second, charge reasonable rates; that, in performing this function, it must act as agent of the public, upon its own initiative as well as upon petition, to investigate the acts of public utilities relative to service and rates, and to enforce adequate service and reasonable rates.

The regulating commission, my friends, must be a Tribune of the people, putting its engineering, its accounting and its legal resources into the breach for the purpose of getting the facts and doing justice to both the consumers and investors in public utilities.

Advance announcement by the Governor of his PSC candidates would provide the public an opportunity to help the Senate in its “vetting” process, prior to a vote, in selection of this very important “agent of the legislature” and “Tribune of the people.”

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