Help Wanted: executive director for controversial regulatory agency. Applicant must be able to deal with irate consumers, powerful industry, ambiguous federal policy and inadequate staff. Apply to District of Columbia Public Service Commission.
Less than a week after a team of consultants formally recommended creation of the job, the District PSC is looking for its first executive director.
The post was in the planning stage even before the consultants' report came out, explained PSC Chairman Elizabeth Patterson.
Hiring an executive director to take over the day-to-day administration of the PSC is the first step in shaping up Washington's utility regulation.
The PSC has been under fire for some time and this year set a national record for "regulatory lag" by taking two years to decide whether to increase the rates of Potomac Electric & Power Co.
The extent of the agency's problems became clear last week when Temple, Barker & Sloane Inc. of Lexington, Mass. reported, "The PSC is not adequately equipped . . . to meet the emerging regulatory challenges."
That was not news to the PSC, Patterson said yesterday. The agency commissioned the consultants' study in part to bolster its case for a bigger budget, an expanded staff and a major reorganization that will require action by both the city council and Congress.
With a couple of conspicuous exceptions the effort has the backing both of utility consumers and utility companies.
"We welcome any action that will relieve regulatory lag," commented Pepco spokesman Dan Ruskin, emphasising that the electric company is not giving blanket endorsement to all the various proposals for revamping the PSC.
Washington Gas Light's chief press representative, Paul Young, generally agrees, although he suggests the consultants raised one question whose answer ought not to be in doubt.
The consultants said the PSC must decide whether it is an advocate of consumer needs or a judge of the competing interests of consumers and utility companies.
"There should be no doubt as to their role," responded Young, noting that the District set up the office of People's Counsel to play the role of advocate on utility issues.
With energy costs soaring, it is the electric and gas companies that provide the PSC with its most controversial questions, but the two companies so far are avoiding what could be the most controversial recommendation about the PSC.
The study suggests the entire PSC budget he financed by assessing the utility companies. Now the agency gets about half a million dollars a year from local tax revenues and assesses the utility companies for the costs of considering rate increases.
The idea of having the utilities pay the whole bill apparently is to free the PSC'S funding from the whims of the city council, which in the interest of economy has often shortchanged the District's most powerful consumer protection agency.
Financing PSC operations by assessing the utility companies will not mean that Pepco and WGL and the telephone company are paying the bills. The utility companies will just pass the tab on to consumers.
The money will still come out of the pockets of taxpayers, and taxes aren't likely to go down. The council should have no trouble finding another use for the $500,000 that now goes to the PSC.
But regardless of who pays the bill, the PSC needs more money. For lack of funds, the agency has been unable to fully implement a consumer bill of rights adopted earlier this year to protect customers from unreasonable cutoffs of service, exorbitant utility deposits and other abuses. The number of complaints about utilities has doubled in three years, the consultants noted, and the commission can't keep up with the workload.
The PSC also needs to get out of the securities business, as the consultants and the chairman recommended. The agency's securities division -- which regulates stock brokers -- is, as Patterson puts it, looking for a home."
The logical place to put securities regulation is in the city's Economic Development Agency, which ought to be responsible for regulating all businesses. The city insurance department and the Department of Licenses, Investigations and Inspections have more in common with securities regulation than setting electric rates.
PSC Chairman Patterson met with Mayor Marion Barry yesterday to make the case for reorganizing and revitalizing the agency. The mayor could get the ball rolling by endorsing Patterson's efforts and by bolstering the PSC by quickly filling the vacancy created when commissioner William Stratton left the PSC earlier this summer.