JUICE: Prom Night

By Published On: June 4, 2010

It’s that time of year. Graduating seniors. Prom night. Don’t know whether you’ll end up a wallflower intact--or in the backseat of the limo, slightly less virginal than before. In the energy business, every workday seems to be Prom Night for “stakeholders.” I’ve never seen a dictionary term for California stakeholders. My own definition is someone who will never be prom queen or king, but more like cheerleaders. Stakeholders want someone to win the game--their companies, customers, shareholders, constituents, clients, environment, economy, egos. Stakeholders get invited to lots of “parties”--workshops, board meetings, and legislative hearings. In California, the party givers have to send out the invitations to be politically correct so the prom isn’t taken over by the jocks--again. But, there’s a tendency for agencies to invite stakeholders to the party after the coronations are finished, creating the illusion that the democratic process is at work. As a journalist, I’m officially an observer, but I started out as a stakeholder. Decades ago, the California Public Utilities Commission opened its affairs to intervenors (pre-compensation). There were no professionals outside the usual coterie of lawyers and experts, only hopeful citizens daring cross the 505 Van Ness Ave. threshold on their own. After wrangling with bureaucratese and legalese, myself and fellow stakeholders did what no sane people would now do--represent our stakeholder selves without lawyering up. While a rather rag-tag bunch of stakeholders, the CPUC system took us seriously enough to adjudicate in our favor. The commissioners upheld the judges’ opinions. Observing the stakeholder system now, I would never advise anyone to be so foolishly optimistic. If a stakeholder becomes involved at the CPUC administrative law level, s/he will spend inordinate amounts of time and money participating in the hearing process, with the strong likelihood that any administrative judge’s opinion will be overturned by commissioners at the last minute. Citizens without means have to beg, raise money, and donate time to procure expert witnesses and lawyers. To what end? I’ve seen it so often it makes me want to hire a shrink--people who may not veer to the policy that regulators ultimately adopt, but who put their lives, and sometimes life savings into the stakeholder process--only to be ignored. They may be completely wrong. Misguided. Not deserving compensation. Sometimes stakeholders put all that effort in, and the process is cleared to go their direction--only to have the crown yanked by regulators at the last minute. If stakeholders get involved with the California Independent System Operator process, it too, is more a forgone conclusion, according to those who’ve been deeply engaged. As an observer, I see the CAISO board almost always voting unanimously in accordance with whatever the staff concludes. Those involved in the constant open workshops at Blue Ravine Road suggest their involvement on rare occasions influences staff recommendations, but, for the most part, it’s a gratuitous turn on the dance floor. At the federal level, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has its “open” process. Anti-nuclear advocates wearily engage in a stakeholder system that’s an extraordinarily closed old boy’s club for the nuclear industry. In one breakaway, the folks opposing continued operations at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant were moderately successful in a Ninth Circuit Court appeal over the lack of federal regulators’ concern about potential terrorist threats (Current, July 31, 2009). Getting to appeals court takes not only a good case, but a high-level attorney and no shortage of funds. In the middle of the Prom Night welcoming committee are the California Energy Commission and the Legislature. The Energy Commission is less accustomed to stakeholders, thus, it seems to take them more seriously. There are no “professional” stakeholders at the CEC because there are no intervenor funds available to pay them for a favorable decision like there are at the California Public Utilities Commission. At the CPUC, an intervenor must prove that s/he contributed to a decision in order to be compensated for attorney and expert witness work. If an intervenor not only gets through the system, but can prove that the engagement led, at least in part, to a positive decision by commissioners, an intervenor is set to be paid by ratepayers. The underlying assumption is that an outsider is representing ratepayers in a unique way that augments the efforts of the CPUC, Division of Ratepayer Advocates, and other state officials. The Energy Commission has no such funds. Stakeholders are there on the behest of their companies to implore for siting developments, or on environmental or environmental justice matters--usually to plead against siting developments. In all events, stakeholders at the CEC have no illusion that they will be paid for their time in government offices. The capitol is more accustomed to the stakeholder process (some call it “voters”). Yet, the rules beyond the marble floor are almost as exclusionary as the CPUC. Regular lobbyists get a wink and a nod from legislators who often know them on a first name basis. Common voters rarely ever even get to the podium to make their cases. Lobbyists get paid by utilities, businesses, and non-profits for their three minutes at the microphone. Voters have to couch surf and borrow a suit for the occasion. At least there is a stakeholder process. Being a wall flower is better than nothing because at least they’re semi-welcome at the prom. Advice to the welcoming committee: pay more than lip service to letting the public in on the dance--even if they don’t know the steps. Give unprofessional intervernors all the slack possible. Waltz them through the legalese and the bureaucracy with those liaisons on your staff. Make sure the liaisons are more than a title. Train them to navigate what policy makers consider normal, but what the rest of the world finds terrifying. Make sure your judges let in the unwashed and un-lawyered-up masses. When staff/judge proposes a decision, be sure stakeholders’ input was considered. And then, be very careful before overturning a proposed decision that took months of hearings to create. If not, then don’t host Prom Night. Simply make decisions without the makeup and frills. It’s easier, cheaper, and doesn’t hold out foolish optimism.

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