Mayor Marion Barry vetoed a bill yesterday that would give the D.C. people's counsel more authority to spend money representing consumers in utility rate cases and prohibit staff members of the Public Service Commission from taking an advocacy role.
In his veto message, Barry said that advocacy by PSC staff is essential to the commission's fulfilling its mandate to balance fairness to consumers and utilities.
City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), the bill's sponsor, and People's Counsel Frederick D. Dorsey immediately attacked Barry's veto as anticonsumer.
Clarke and Kane said the mayor was on record in support of the compromise bill that passed the council.
"I'm outraged," Kane said. "The mayor's made a very wrong choice to gut the people's counsel to the detriment of the consumer."
Kane said she believes the veto, the only one by the mayor in the current council session that began in 1983, can be overridden at a City Council meeting on Tuesday. A two-thirds majority vote is required to override a mayoral veto.
Clarke charged that Barry's opposition to the PSC staff advocacy provisions is "just a coating for the mayor to oppose the whole bill" because it strengthens the people's counsel office.
Critics of the current role of the PSC staff say it should not be able to argue a position before the commission but should only provide information.
"This legislation is essential to the function of the people's counsel and to the protection of utility ratepayers in the District of Columbia," Dorsey said in a statement. "The last-minute lobbying that resulted in this veto was unfortunate . . . . "
The bill was opposed by the city's utilities and the PSC, whose members have argued that the ability of their staff to advise them would be inhibited by the measure.
The bill would give the people's counsel, intended to be an independent consumer advocate, more authority to incur expenses such as outside attorneys fees to conduct cases, without getting the approval of the PSC.
The people's counsel assesses utility companies for its costs, which are passed on to utility customers as part of their rates. In the past, the PSC has asserted its authority to deny assessment requests, which have been challenged by utilities.
Pepco official William Jones said the company opposed the assessments provisions because they would allow the people's counsel "to have a blank check to be signed by our customers without any review of their spending."
Utilities have said the cost of the people's counsel is inordinately high.
Barry said he agrees with the major thrust of the bill but that all three PSC commissioners opposed the staff advocacy prohibition.
"There is a perception that the continuation of the current role of the PSC staff weakens the effectiveness of the people's counsel. This is not the case," his veto message stated.