Juice: Community Property

By Published On: August 19, 2011

Editors’ note: This is the first in Current’s summer public participation series. Public agencies want to inform and engage the public. Alas, it’s like figuring out what women want. We, of course know the answer, but you guys never seem to be able to figure it out. The California Public Utilities Commission is holding a Sept. 13 workshop to find the right opening pick-up lines for public connection. I’m amused by the obtuseness of it all. If agency heads would look up from their metaphorical football game, they’d notice the public is right there on the uncomfortable bench next to the Barcalounger. For the past two years, every public commission meeting has been packed with the public. They are yearning for attention. Mostly, outsiders have been looking to appointed representatives for a reprieve from the radio-frequency meters’ ball and chain. When those public speakers leave the auditorium at 505 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco after their one- two-minute time allowance, there’s almost an audible sigh of relief from policy makers. They naturally want to get on with their game. It’s no secret to the public that they’re needling and nagging is barely tolerated. Their opinions are cut short and usually given little weight. Like the battle of the sexes, regulators want the public to go away--but they want them to stay. It also is too easily forgotten that “public” is part of CPUC’s name. At the July 28 business meeting, commission president Mike Peevey exhibited the dichotomy. While limiting speakers’ time, when they left he lamented that they were not around to witness a vote that is supposed to help protect individuals’ privacy despite “smart” meters installations. Nagging is no fun for either gender. It’s easier to sit the opposite sex down, have a cup of tea and talk things over. Here’s the rub: there is no tea and cake to ease communications in or outside the commission. The formal processes, like intervening in hearings, are nearly impenetrable. Becoming an intervenor takes both financial and mental wherewithal. We want our intervenors to be smart and useful, yet there’s a minefield to negotiate before they ever navigate the witness stand. The concept of intervenor compensation is supposed to help, yet that too is for professionals only. The commission could make meaningful public discourse easier simply by having standard forms for intervenors in public hearings. As it is now, one either has to engage an attorney or become an ersatz attorney him or herself. Your above-average public person may engage in months of hearing preparation, argue successfully, and even win most everything in a CPUC docket. But if that person fails to put a correct date on one single filing--what most of us would look over as a tiny technical imperfection on an otherwise flawless countenance--intervenor compensation is lost at a huge personal cost to the public the commission supposedly wishes to engage. (This is a real, recent example. It costs the intervernor $80,000.) If it wasn’t quite so like facing one’s mother-in-law, the public would become smarter and more flirtatious. At the same time, the commission could disincline those who stand to make money off its too-legal process. The agency’s set-up is weighted like a Big Fat Greek Wedding on the side of lawyers and those with the funds to engage them. Unlike intervenors, when it’s a utility, the cost of legal representation is never, ever, questioned by policy makers. As rote, the CPUC considers investigating legal fees the same as denying utilities the right to self-protection. Private corporations, like unregulated generators, have their legal fees at risk. Sometimes they win. Sometimes not. A barrage of lawyers at the commission to overwhelm and seduce any opposition is a useful tool for outsiders, who are not to be confused with the normal “public.” As someone who’s been through the intervenor wringer (for the record, this was before compensation was allowed), and the battle of the sexes, try some couple’s counseling tricks: -Open your door with a beverage and something sweet. Really: there’s never any buffet and cordiality at the stuffy commission meeting rooms. Perhaps the Irvine-based Energy Coalition can spring for Danishes as well as trips to Sweden. -Have more than one counselor walk the public through the CPUC process maze. Fix the public advisor’s office--remember when you said you’d phone or text us after you got our number? Make sure it happens. -Provide online formats for documents that the public can use in hearings and samples of what works in the agency’s process. We understand the commission is upgrading its online document filing system. While regulators are at it, they should be sure to incorporate online forms that make it easier for the public to participate in proceedings. -An adjunct to online communications, make staff and commissioner email addresses’ obvious and welcome. (A hint, look at the online phone book for the commission; there’s a three letter initial code between the person’s name and the phone number, use that with the suffix @cpuc.ca.gov and you’ve got the email.) -Treat the public as equals. Value their opinion. Be honest. Like some women, the public may think it wants a five carat engagement ring, but what we really want is a sympathetic ear, co-decisionmaking, and community property.

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