District of Columbia advisory neighborhood commissions are becoming active in a growing controversy over phone rate requests and how the D.C. Public Service Commission regulates them. Charging that the Public Service Commission has already decided to grant a telephone company request for $54.5 million in additional revenue, several elected advisory neighborhood commissioners said yesterday they were organizing in hopes of changing the agency's policies.
In addition, representatives of ANCs said they may seek an elected Public Service Commission. The three members of the PSC are now appointed by Mayor Marion Barry and confirmed by the City Council.
The dissatisfaction among some groups about the PSC has been fueled by the recent dispute over Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. bill inserts informing telephone customers about the revenue request. Advisory neighborhood commissioners have said that the inserts were inaccurate and also complained about the Public Service Commission's refusal to schedule another community hearing about C&P's request for additional rate increases.
Under the current rate request, made last August and twice modified by C&P, residential rates would nearly double. C&P would charge a fee for a dial tone separate from usage, requiring residential customers to pay $13.42 a month to be hooked into the system, and an additional $10.12 a month for usage. Current residential rates for an unlimited number of calls are $12.49 a month.
Advisory neighborhood commissioners, who serve as a liaison between the D.C. government and consumers, said yesterday it looked as though the PSC was ready to grant C&P's request for additional rates and was shutting consumers out of the decision-making process.
"It is much more than disregarding public appeals, it's that major decisions have already been made, so the PSC is offering us a fait accompli," said Christine M. Viezens, a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner. Viezens said that what concerned the consumer groups was that 90 percent of the rate increase would fall on residential customers.
"They will send out notices after they give the money," said Mark Plotkin, another advisory neighborhood commissioner. "I feel that that is a sham, and there is an appearance of sensitivity, but they have become the D.C. un-Public Service Commission."
Three City Council members, Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), Chairman David Clarke (D) and Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), as well as advisory neighborhood commissioners, had requested an additional community hearing be held before the PSC rules in August but the PSC has refused the requests, Plotkin said.
Kane yesterday called the PSC's refusal to hold another community hearing bad politics and added she may exercise the City Council's legislative power, if necessary, to ensure that a hearing is held. "Legally, the procedures the PSC is following are proper," she said. "Is it politically smart? No."
Plotkin said that the PSC, together with consumer advocates, had drawn up a new draft of a C&P bill insert meant to accurately notify consumers about the revenue request but that the PSC decided not to order C&P to issue the insert until the revenue portion of the case is decided.
PSC representatives defend the agency's actions, however. "The commission has already gone above and beyond the number of community hearings normally held during the revenue portion of the case," said Howard Davenport, general counsel for the PSC. The PSC has held two community hearings, he said, one more than usual. More community hearings would be held to decide a new rate design if the rate request is granted, he said.
Davenport said bill inserts would be mailed only when there was a rate design to discuss, in part because of the high cost -- about $100,000 -- of an insert.
Consumer advocates and advisory neighborhood commissioners said they may seek a voter initiative to establish an elected PSC or may try other measures to put more pressure on PSC members.
Nine of 37 D.C. advisory neighborhood commissions, whose members are elected, have become involved in protesting the telephone rate case, as well as numerous civic groups, the Consumer Utility Board that represents consumers, the D.C. Democratic State Committee, the Communications Workers of America and the D.C. Office of the People's Counsel.