Nobody ever accused Brian Lederer of being a nice guy.
As the District of Columbia's People's Counsel, Lederer fought every effort to raise electric, gas or telephone rates. In the process, he infuriated the local utility companies, outraged the Public Service Commission, alienated many of his allies and ultimately got himself fired.
Mayor Marion Barry offered only the feeble excuse that it was "time for a change" when he announced last week that he was not reappointing Lederer and would give the job to Frederick Dorsey, a deputy corporation counsel with no known experience in utility issues.
It is an open question whether the utilities "got" Lederer, or whether he did himself in.
There is no doubt that Lederer pursued his legal obligation to represent the public in utility rate cases with a vengeance and made an army of enemies in the process.
There was none of this polite veneer of "the honorable opposition" in Lederer's dealings with Potomac Electric Power Co., Washington Gas Light and C&P Telephone; it was us against them. hatever the utilities wanted, Lederer opposed. With little sense of tact or tactics, Lederer automatically said "no!" to even routine requests for Public Service Commission authorization.
An unreconstructed regulator, Lederer never caught the deregulation fever that helped elect Ronald Reagan and is rapidly reversing half a century of federal regulatory philosophy. Moderation in the pursuit of lower utility bills was no virtue as far as Brian was concerned; obstructionism in the opposition to higher rates, no vice.
While Lederer chose to ignore the roaring wave of doubt about the virtue of open antagonism between the regulated and the regulator, Mayor Barry did not. Despite his populist posturing, the street smart mayor has long since made peace with the Washington business community.
But it was more than changing political attitudes toward the role of regulation that caught up with Brian Lederer and cost him his job.
The big issue was money. Lederer spent a lot of it--more on a per-capita basis than any other utility public advocate in the nation, more in total than all but four states spent in 1981 according to an Ohio Consumer Counsel survey cited frequently by the local utilities.
In Pepco electric rate cases alone, spending by Lederer's office soared from $538,000 in 1978--his first year as People's Counsel--to $1,582,000 in 1981 and $1,646,000 in 1982. By Pepco's calculation, Lederer spent more money in the last two years fighting Pepco rate cases alone than the Maryland People's Counsel spent on cases involving six major utilities and 100 local water companies. And the budget of Maryland's People's Counsel is among the half dozen largest in the country.
Unlike virtually all other city agencies, the D.C. People's Counsel does not have to go to the mayor and city council for its annual budget. In addition to a modest appropriation for office salaries, the People's Counsel can assess the utility companies for the cost of hiring engineers, lawyers and other consultants to analyze rate increase requests. The People's Counsel costs are then added to electric rates as a hidden tax. ederer hired as many as six outside law firms as consultants in a single rate case and more than once wound up in court when the utilities challenged his free spending.
In one Pepco case, the Public Service Commission, with the backing of the courts, threw out more than $250,000 in People's Counsel expenditures on the grounds the work was irrelevant and shouldn't be charged to the rate payers.
On a cost-benefit basis, Lederer argues that spending $1 million to pick holes in a utility's request to raise rates is a bargain if it leads to a multimillion dollar reduction in the rate hike. If you consider the difference between the rate increases local utilities have asked for during Lederer's tenure and the rate increases that were granted, he's saved about $10 for every $1 spent.
Lederer's propensity for spending money like a Pentagon general has to be weighed against who he's fighting. None of the local utilities are bad actors by the standards of their industries; Pepco is a model of efficiency compared with Virginia Electric & Power and Washington Gas has sought only modest rate increases of late.
C&P Telephone Co. was the least of the People's Counsel's problems, but will present the most difficult consumer utility issues in the coming years. The break up of AT&T and deregulation of telecommunications could triple local phone bills, many analysts believe. Maintaining low cost phone service will become as imporant an issue as holding down heating costs has been since the first Arab oil embargo.
With his willingness to question the fundamental premise of utility rate decisions and to raise broad policy issues in the immediate context of next year's bills, Lederer could have played an effective role in the new era of telecommunications.
By picking a lawyer with no utility or telecommunications experience to be People's Counsel, the mayor has left himself open to charges of being soft on consumerism. If utility rates go up faster than they have in the last four years, Mayor Barry will have to answer for it.
If Lederer were more flexible and more politically savvy, the mayor might simply have been able to tell him to cool it, cut his spending and quit acting like Darth Vader. o matter how hard he fights to hold down utility bills, it is virtually impossible for the People's Counsel to build an independent constituency. Though Lederer's efforts saved Washington companies millions of dollars on their utility bills, he was perceived as anti-business and drew little support in that community.
Firing Lederer for being too tough a cop was not the answer. Though some of his actions bordered on the regulatory equivalent of police brutality, Washington was better off with a junk yard dog for a People's Counsel than with no watch dog at all.