Legislature Queries Complaint Methods’ ‘Integrity’

By Published On: June 12, 2014

The state Legislature is poised to launch an audit of the California Public Utilities Commission’s policies and practices for disclosing customer complaints next month due to “significant questions about the integrity” of the practices. At its July 1 meeting, the state Assembly’s Legislative Audit Joint Committee is expected to consider a written request by three members of the Senate Energy, Utilities & Communications committee to authorize an audit to ensure that commission customer complaint data is “valid, reliable and objective.” The members added that regulators should have a “transparent, uniformly applied process” for disclosing the data to the Legislature and other policy makers. In a letter signed by Senate committee chair Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Van Nuys), vice chair Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield) and Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), the three legislators noted “recent events raise significant questions about the CPUC’s policies and practices for compiling and disclosing informal complaint data and its responsiveness to requests from the Legislature for complaint data.” Padilla, Fuller and Hill also state in their letter that they want numerous questions answered, including: • Clarification of the commission’s policy for responding to external stakeholders for customer complaint data; • What the commission’s process is for determining what customer complaint data are posted on its website; and • Revealing the commission’s plan for evaluating whether the complaint data on the website are accessible and user friendly for customers, providers, and other stakeholders. While there were no specific energy related examples in the senators’ missive, they did note a telecommunications issue. Verizon phone customers, as well as The Utility Reform Network, have alleged that Verizon is refusing to repair copper-wire landlines in order to force customers to migrate over to newer calling technology, the trio noted. According to the three state senators, early this year, in a response to a request from the Legislature early this year for information on “forced migration” complaints regarding Verizon’s alleged pushing of customers from copper wire to fiber optic and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) phone service, the commission didn’t provide any data and high-level staff said they were not aware of data on the issue. At the same time, the audit request states that the commission provided the relevant data to “an outside organization,” and that the information included 31 customer complaints, some of which had been on file for up to two years. The letter also mentions how in its annual report to the Legislature in January, the commission failed to separately report any VoIP-related complaints—even after meeting with legislative staff for several months on the substance and format of such reports. Commission staff said at the time that they’d interpreted the reporting provision as authorizing, but not requiring, such reporting. The senators sent their audit request to Legislative Audit Joint Committee Chair Adam Gray May 20, and the issue was originally slated for the committee’s June 4 meeting, the day after statewide primary elections. That meeting, however, was postponed to July 1. The commission has the authority to handle customer complaints and inquiries for the main purpose of helping customers informally resolve service problems on a case-by-case basis. It also has the power to track, monitor, and analyze aggregate complaint data to identify service issues that may require a comprehensive solution. Its consumer affairs branch handles informal customer complaints and inquiries using an information management system that went live in 2008. The commission started posting company-specific complaint data on its website in March.

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