If the D.C. City Council meeting last Wednesday hadn't turned into a replay of the old Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine, no one would have noticed the latest effort to play politics with your electric, gas and telephone bills.
What started out as a bill to strengthen public representation in utility rate cases nearly turned into a measure that could have complicated the decision-making process and cost consumers a lot of money.
Fortunately, that kick in the stomach for consumers became a belly laugh when some members of the council tried some fancy footwork and fell on their faces.
Behind the laughs, however, was yet another effort to undermine the Office of the People's Counsel, which acts as consumer advocate in utility rate cases. And behind the anti-people's counsel effort were Mayor Barry, the D.C. Public Service Commission and those who stand to lose the most when consumers have a strong voice -- the utility companies.
None of these behind-the-scenes players were visible during Wednesday's council meeting, and even veteran council-watchers had trouble following what was going on.
The brouhaha began when the council prepared to take final action on a measure backed by council members Betty Ann Kane and Wilhelmina J. Rolark to assure independent financing for the people's counsel.
The question of how to pay for the people's counsel has been a nasty subplot in the story of D.C. utility regulation ever since the office was created by Congress almost 10 years ago. Several states, including Maryland, have public advocates whose job is to object when utility companies ask for higher gas, electric or phone rates; the D.C. people's counsel has perhaps the broadest mandate in the nation to fight rate increases.
The District's second people's counsel, Brian Lederer, used that authority to hire engineers, accountants and lawyers to fight toe-to-toe with the utilities. No one else had ever done that before, and it was very effective, saving D.C. businesses and consumers tens of millions of dollars.
For his efforts, Lederer got himself fired. Mayor Barry refused to reappoint him, yielding to political pressure from the utilities over the cost of the office.
Unlike other city agencies, the Office of the People's Counsel doesn't get a piece of the city budget. Instead, the office's costs are assessed against the utility companies and passed on to the customers.
When the utilities realized Lederer was blowing their rate increases out of the water by hiring a well-paid team of consultants, they set out to torpedo him. They challenged the people's counsel's assessment authority in court and before the Public Service Commission, which must approve assessments against the utilities.
There has never been any love lost between the people's counsel and the politically appointed PSC. PSC members have long resented the independent people's counsel and have tried repeatedly to control the office or offset its power. The PSC repeatedly rejected the assessments and stalled paying the bills, crippling the people's counsel's ability to act without PSC approval.
Frustrated by years of bickering between the people's counsel and PSC, council members Kane and Rolark some time ago set out to assure independence for the people's counsel. They wanted to limit the PSC's power over the people's counsel's budget and rein in the PSC staff, which spent much time and money feuding with the counsel. Despite opposition from the utilities, the mayor and the PSC, the bill came up for final approval last Wednesday.
It was then that Councilman H. R. Crawford tried to pull a fast one. He introduced an amendment that would have put the PSC staff on equal footing with the people's counsel in utility rate cases.
Like the people's counsel assessment issue, the PSC staff authority question is one of those bureaucratic debates that does not appear to mean much to mere taxpayers. Think of it this way: The PSC acts as a judge in utility rate cases. The utility is the prosecutor, trying to prove higher rates are needed. The people's counsel is the defense attorney. The PSC staff wants to become a third party in the case, able to present evidence like the other two sides.
That would be like giving the judge a role in presenting the case, the people's counsel objected. It also would cost a lot of money, because PSC staff has the same authority as the people's counsel to assess its costs against the utilities. (Strangely enough, the utilities did not object to either the cost or the new power of the PSC staff, which may tell you whose side the staff is expected to come down on.)
When Crawford brought up the PSC staff amendment at Wednesday night's council meeting, he said he was doing it on behalf of Rolark, who was not there at the time. Some people at the meeting figured Rolark must have made a deal to trade independent financing for the people's counsel for additional power for the PSC staff. The amendment passed easily.
Then Rolark showed up, furious. She had not asked Crawford to introduce the amendment for her. She was opposed to giving the PSC staff more power. There had been no deal. Several council members cracked up over Crawford's ploy, but Rolark was not amused. She all but called Crawford a liar; colleague Hilda Mason did call him a liar. Crawford's lame excuse was that he had meant to say he was introducing the amendment for Councilman John Ray, not Rolark.
Ray, Rolark -- it's hard to keep them straight. The idea that council members couldn't tell who was on first caused pandemonium. Chairman David A. Clarke had to recess the meeting to restore order.
Rolark demanded that the council reconsider the amendment and it was quickly voted down, but that should not be the end of it. With federal regulation of natural gas prices about to end, with the electric utility industry facing sharp cost increases and with phone rates skyrocketing because of the breakup of the Bell System, utility regulation is the most important consumer issue in Washington.
Consumers facing three growing utility bills deserve to be told why the mayor and some council members have repeatedly tried to undercut the work of the D.C. People's Counsel.