Dysfunctional Advocates Family

By Published On: July 9, 2004

I wish I had the state resources to support a staff of 150 smart, savvy people whose raison d’?tre is social and economic do-goodism. I’d be making big hay while the sun shines. But then again, I’m glad I don’t run the Office of Ratepayer Advocates. I am sorry to say that despite those admirable attributes, it is harvesting little or no straw because of the black cloud hanging over the agency. Insiders and observers despair that the organization is dysfunctional because of years of neglect. Given the office’s dysfunction, legislators and politicians are faced with tough questions, assuming they even care what happens to the organization: Is California wasting ratepayer money on the Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA)? Is the office, within the California Public Utilities Commission, in such disarray that it can’t be rescued? Should consumers depend on nonprofits such as The Utility Reform Network (TURN) and the graces of regulators to have their voices represented? Finally, could a drastic shake-up of the office lead to greener pastures? ORA has been a vital part of California’s regulatory past. Unlike the case in other states, the office is not within the Attorney General’s Office. It was set up to share not just a building with the commission, but also its resources and its access. Since the energy crisis, the advocates’ office has become increasingly irrelevant and ineffective because of lack of leadership, vision, and support, as well as other problems. That’s not me saying it-that’s the sentiment welling up from a deep current of sadness and frustration among its own staff. I can’t tell you their names, but I can say the discontent is widespread. The governor’s energy agency reorganization plan?expected soon after the budget resolution?could shake up ORA. I don’t profess to know what’s in that proposal, but ideas in the past have included placing the division under the attorney general. Some think that’s not such a bad idea. Others worry that the advocates’ office would be more subject to politics, have less access to CPUC data, and have less legal maneuverability. Current ORA executive director Regina Birdsell doesn’t seem terribly perturbed about any potential reorganization by the governor. She said that with the energy crisis, followed by the budget crises, “There’s no time to think big thoughts” about the organization’s role; it’s enough just to keep it alive. “We’re fighting for scraps. We can’t compete” with utilities whose lobbying staffs greatly outnumber ORA’s, she added. “As we win less, I think it matters.” Birdsell said that the idea of moving the organization to the Attorney General’s Office or elsewhere has been around for awhile and doesn’t threaten her. “We work on enormously complex issues, and I welcome the debate” on where to be most effective, she said. “If that means we’re in the AG’s office, I’m all for it. Move me where I can get the resources.” A little background: Two decades ago, when “command and control” was not a pejorative term for regulation, the office (then known as the Division of Ratepayer Advocates) was full of fresh-out-of-college idealists. Utilities had been pushing for a string of expensive nuclear plants all along the coast. They had proposed big dams and pumped-storage facilities too. This portended ballooning cost-of-service rates that would likely have made today’s prices seem a trifle. The advocates’ role in hearings and influence on commissioners were crucial to paring down utilities’ monolithic plans. With deregulation expected to take care of market excesses, the advocates’ role was expected to diminish. Staffing declined from 205 in the mid-1990s to 120 today. Thus, when the energy crisis hit and Pacific Gas & Electric declared bankruptcy, fewer people took on more work. The organization lost its strong chief, Ed Texeira. He wasn’t replaced until May 2001, and then it was by Birdsell?a political appointee from Governor Gray Davis’s office. Until then, Birdsell had specialized in philanthropic issues. In the last three years, staff haven’t seen much of their chief. Birdsell lives in Southern California. In fact, most of them kiddingly say, “Who?” when her name is mentioned. They’d be pissed off about the lack of direction, authority, influence, and training if they weren’t so beaten down by it. Birdsell doesn’t seem surprised by the well of frustration within her organization and admits to her lack of presence. “They definitely saw less of me in 2004,” she said, adding that she has spent a bit of time this year talking to legislators about ORA’s future. Birdsell said her two deputies-who work in the San Francisco office-are taking over more day-today management while she uses her time to lobby and meet with decision makers. In a rare, perhaps twice-yearly, San Francisco meeting this week, Birdsell heard from staff-at least those who were warned she was to be there for a meeting. Other top people, perhaps the angriest staffers, professed cluelessness as to her sudden appearance. One of the dysfunctions noted by in- and outsiders is the advocates’ absence in regulators’ offices. Commissioners meet with Southern California Edison officials, PG&E brass, and Sempra honchos. They even let TURN up to their perch on the fifth floor. Rarely, however, do regulators see the advocates that share the same address. So even when ORA staff are turning out important work to benefit ratepayers, commissioners are uninformed about advocates’ positions. It’s a case of not missing what you don’t know. Meanwhile, TURN has become something of a de facto ORA. It doesn’t have the resources or the staff, but it makes a big noise with what it does have. “TURN doesn’t want the broader responsibility to cover everything” in lieu of ORA, said Bob Finkelstein, TURN executive director. “We think it’s incumbent on the governor to get them out of the current [downward] cycle.” The Aglet Consumer Alliance, too, has shown a presence in advocating for consumers. “ORA’s reduced capability to cover issues means more work for TURN and Aglet, but I take no pleasure in following those opportunities,” said James Weil, Aglet director. Remember, both ORA and utility staff are paid for by ratepayers. The commission, however, won’t look into the wisdom of spending rates on utility staff because, they say, that’s the utilities’ business. Birdsell said that some utilities won’t even tell her how many regulatory affairs people they have so she can report it to the Legislature. On the sunny side of the hay baler, there has been a tiny infusion of knowledge and spirit from a couple of people who have moved to ORA from other parts of the commission. Attempts are being made at training from within, particularly attempts to influence commissioners. Talks are beginning among staff about morphing ORA’s role to fit the post-deregulation world. This includes being more of a presence and initiating negotiated settlements with utilities in order to get rid of some casework. It could even be that the organization moves beyond its limited role of considering issues of ratepayer economics and also approaches the idea that customers benefit from environmental and other social improvements that may be promoted by regulation. <b>Chilling Requirement</b> “You know, we have to report it if we talk to the media,” said one Office of Ratepayer Advocates staffer. Talk about your “chilling” comment. Chilling as in putting fear in the hearts of civil servants who work for the public, chilling as in keeping a secretive lid on public information, and chilling to a journalist who gets all clammy when information is laundered through a single filter in the “communications” department in the name of making things “correct and complete” for reporters. It’s a combination of being put on hold for your “convenience” and being disconnected at the same time. From what <i>Circuit</i> can determine, the “reporting reporters” policy came in when commissioner Loretta Lynch was appointed California Public Utilities Commission president. In other words, the commissioner with the cultivated reputation of the ratepayers’ friend is the one who clamped down on staff comments. Luckily for the public, it appears to be widely ignored; otherwise, the column above?with vital information for legislators and other policy makers?wouldn’t have been possible.

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