Last month, before inauguration fever hit the Capital, one delighted D.C. official took an oath of office for his second three-year term. But despite having scored a series of impressive consumer victories and a rare unanimity of rave reviews by the press, the public and fellow officials alike, the only ones who went to the District Building to applaud the reappointment were members of his tiny staff and family from out of town.
That, said Brian Lederer, the obscure official, is just one of the ironies of running the Office of the People's Counsel, the city agency charged with representing consumers in rate cases brought before the Public Service Commission. With control over electricity, gas, telephone and taxicab rates, the PSC is one of the city's most powerful agencies with what is perhaps the most significant impact on the consumers' budget. Still, the Office of the People's Counsel, its consumer representative stepchild, only recently gained widespread public support.
With a staff of five and a budget of $163,000 a year, Lederer has consistently sought to minimize rate increases granted the utilities over the last three years, saying that the companies are forcing consumers to pay for sloppy company-sponsored forecasting, inadequate marketing and overambitious construction plans. "We've saved the public about $130 million," boasted a gleeful Lederer, referring to rejected rate hikes and scaled-down construction plans his office has advocated.
Actually, the difference between the amount requested over the past three years by the gas and electric companies, and the amount granted, equals a savings of about $63 million, no small shakes even if it is half his estimate. Besides the dollar figure, however, the savings represent the increasing clout of consumer politics, after decades of impotence and neglect.
Congress first established the Office of the People's Counsel in 1926 as a low-budget addition to what was when the Public Utilities Board. Though at that time the budget never exceeded $8,000 a year, Presidents Roosevelt through Truman attacked the existence of the office, with Roosevelt pressing the issue by refusing to fill the post for seven years. In later years, two officeholders quit in frustration midway through their terms, one of them even recommending to Congress that his job be abolished, and it was, in 1951.
Facing rising consumer anger in the aftermath of the energy crisis, however, Congress reestablished the post in 1975. Lederer is the second person to take the job since then. Although his staff is small, he has one powerful tool his predecessors lacked. According to a provision of Congress, he can bill companies for the costs of technical or legal help that he commissions to fight their rate requests.
With the added help, the office also has helped with the passage of a Consumers' Bill of Rights, won a schedule making off-peak rates cheaper and barred utlitities from charging customers for the construction costs of uncompleted plants. With federal grant money, Leaderer has for the first time tried to institutionalize grassroots participation in the citywide energy debate. Now after three years, the 38-year-old former defense attorney has found that his effectiveness and diligence has won him an incongruous mix of supporters, ranging from apartment and office buildings owners squeezed by mounting fuel costs to complaining tenants who've found sympathetic ears in the Counsel's 14th Street NW office.
"I think he's done a terrific job," said Lenore Pomerance, a consumer activist who served on a citizens' committee that selected Lederer. "There's controversy all the time, which tends to make people uncomfortable but . . . Brian doesn't seem to have (compromising) political ambitions in the city and he's willing to really go to bat for consumers. He's the kind of advocate we really wanted."
"He's done more than anyone in the People's Council; the District needs somebody like him," agreed Charles Warfield, a retired local union official who now chairs the Consumer Utility Board (CUB), a watchdog group. The board was established by funds Lederer solicited from the federal government, and makes its own independent studies of energy issues. Board members agreed that Lederer's support has been consistent.
"He's done something unique in (having been) willing to back a consumer advisory group that sometimes didn't agree with what he wanted," said Pomerance. "For example, we wanted to get more minorities in the energy field is to hire them as experts. The CUB really pushed on that and he followed through on it. And now minorities have had a chance to break into this elist area of consulting."
Underscoring those efforts, said Lederer in a recent interview, is his conviction that "energy decisions are fundamentally policy decisions, not technical ones. When you decide how you're going to heat homes, cool homes, light office buildings, there is no one answer and no one price tag. It depends on how we do it, and what level of reliability we want to pay for, and what kinds of trade-offs we want to make between construction and conversation," he said.
With a BA from Harvard, a masters from the London School of Economics and a law degree from the University of Seattle, Lederer is also not impressed with the armadas of technical witnesses the utlitities are apt to launch to buttress their rate requests."One of the problems of technical people is that they come in under the guise of expertise and they don't have expertise," he insisted. "They can tell you how to build a system, but they can't tell you what the best solution is."
Lederer readily admits that much of his effectiveness comes from his authority to charge the companies for the costs of his own, independent technical advice -- a provision the companies have fought earnestly since 1974. t"The philosophy is that the rate payer ought to have some access to his money. So sometimes we can out-lawyer the utilities; it means you can go out there and be competitive," Lederer said. "The companies' strategy is litigate, litigate; to keep the public focused on the short term. But if they don't file a case, we don't spend the money."
In 1979, after a rate case involving Potomac Electric Power Company, Lederer presented the company with a bill of approximately $400,000 in legal advice. That month, the City Council considered Pepco-sponsored legislation to curtail Lederer's authority. Although the bill later passed the council, requiring Lederer to press his claims indirectly through the PSC, Lederer was more than gratified with the outcome of the case: Pepco received only $5.8 million out of the $44.8 million requested, and was forced to end a 30-year-old practice of forcing customers to pay for construction work in progress. "I thought $400,000 was a pretty good investment, don't you?," said Lederer of a pleasant memory.
Though they are reluctant to comment on Lederer's job, except to point to their repeated attempts to quash his collection efforts, the indications are that the utilities are not pleased with their adversary. "I do question whether there is the authority under the law to retain legal counsel and to assess the company," said H. Lowell Davis, a Pepco executive vice president and a frequent witness at rate hearings. "And I wonder whether the amount he has spent has been (cost-efficient) from the standpoint of the benefits the customers have received."
Confident of his contribution to the public, Lederer now has set his sights on persuading the companies to incorporate conservation into their planning process. "We've got to start planning long term," he said."Otherwise, people save more and they pay more for it, because the companies are going to have less demand for their product, and they're going to hit the commission for a rate increase to make up for it. It's ridiculous," he sputtered, clearly off on another people's crusade.