When Maryland Public Service Commissioner Michael Darr Barnes announced six months ago that he would keep a public list of those who contact him about the commission's public utility regulation activities, he was applauded by Common Cause and others who support more openness in government.
Six months later, however, no one has ever asked to look at the list, and Barnes is slightly discouraged although not ready to quit the prctice.
"I wonder if anybody cares," he said. "I've been doing it faithfully, writing down all this junk everyday. The obvious temptation is to say that nobody cares."
Barnes listed 226 contacts over the months, scribbling names, dates, organizations, causes and noting in his own shorthand who initatied the contact. The idea behind the procedure, which consumer groups frequently advocate, is that the public has a right to know who talks to public officials and tries to influence them on significant public issues - for instance the issue of how high your gas will be.
The problem is the voluntary basis on which Barnes did it, said Maryland Common Cause lobbyist Lee Perlman. "The only people who are going to volunteer, by volunteering, demonstrate that they are not people you need to watch that closely," he said. "For consumer groups, for people who are concerned about what goes on with the commission, Barnes is the most trusted of the commissioners."
"It's a weird sort of situation where the guy most likely to do that sort of thing is also the guy people are least likely to go look at the reports of because they don't think he's giving undue attention to the wrong people," Perlman said.
What Barnes' list shows is that about 60 per cent of his contacts over the six-month period were with the representives of organized consumer groups, individual customers of business customers of the utilities. About 15 per cent of the contract (personal meetings telephone calls and letters) were with representatives of the utilities, with Barnes sometimes initiated the contact. Those contacts included discussions of individual complaint and requests for information for consumer groups.
About 25 per cent of the contacts were with other representatives of government, including representatives of the office of the People's Counsel, members of the general assembly and city and county government representatives. For instance, on January 19, Barnes, who lives in Kensington, met with Montgomery County council member John Menke to discuss Pepco's Dickerson site.
Barnes did not keep track of mailings that came in that were not specifically directed at him but were to the commissioners in general.
I don't really feel badly that no one looked at it, but I think it might be interesting to see what the day of a Public Service Commissioner is like," he said.
Perlman said he would like to see an executive order or legislation mandating similar logging of contacts from people in the executive branch state government involved in rule-making. He has under consideration approaching acting Gov. Blair Lee about such an order, he said.
Barnes said he thinks an order or legislation would be a good idea and that it might also be a good idea to require state legislators to keep such lists of contacts. "I don't find this any under burden," he said of his own voluntary efforts. "I think it has its advantages. It forces me to keep in mind constantly who's paying my salary and what it is I'm supposed to be doing," he said.
"I don't know if there's any point in his continuing to do it," Perlman said of Barnes' logging of contacts. Perlman said he thought groups interested in public utility questions would want to look at the list "at least as an intellectual exercise. In fact, I think I would like to take a look at it."
"It would be kind of a pity if he stopped, if only in a symbolic way," Periman said. "But I'm not sure I want him to keep doing a lot of paper work when he's the only one doing it."
Barnes will continue the listing. "I think somebody ought to be doing it," he said. Representatives of the regulated utilities are aware that all their dealings with Barnes will be public, and that is useful, he said. "I think it's important for people I deal with in an official capacity, to know all my dealings are public."