PSC eyes ethics changes
Monday, December 5, 2011
Missouri utility regulators discussed possible changes Monday to ethics rules that were established in response to private meetings held by commissioners and executives of a power company looking to merge with another utility.
Ethics policies that took effect last year for the Missouri Public Service Commission sought to govern communication involving regulators, but some people believe changes are needed to improve how the rules work.
One key change under consideration focuses on a rule that bans individuals or groups that might be involved in cases with the commission, such as a utility’s request for a rate increase, from talking with commissioners about possible “substantive issues” in a future case. Such issues could be any evidence likely to be included in the case.
The commission has considered repealing that ban. There would still be rules that bar discussions between regulators and parties starting 60 days before a case is filed and remaining until the case is concluded, along with requirements that meetings with regulators be disclosed.
But during a public meeting Monday, State Public Counsel Lewis Mills, who represents ratepayers before the Public Service Commission, joined advocates for consumers and industrial energy users in saying they preferred the rule be kept intact.
John Coffman, who represents the Consumers Council of Missouri and the Missouri AARP, said the current policy sets an important benchmark for acceptable conduct.
“Without this rule, we wouldn’t have a clear standard that you are not supposed to have these conversations about matters that are coming up in the future,” Coffman said.
St. Louis-based Ameren Missouri urged regulators to consider other changes, arguing that utilities unfairly face different requirements than groups that get involved in utility regulation, such as consumer advocacy groups.
The Public Service Commission is a five-member panel responsible for regulating utilities and setting rates for energy customers. Some responsibilities require members to behave in a quasi-judicial role, while at other times they act in a legislative capacity. That dual role can create challenges.
Public Service Commission Chairman Kevin Gunn said regulators are looking for possible improvements, not seeking to lessen their standards.
Commissioners accepted public testimony Monday on its proposed rules revisions, though it did not decide whether to make changes.
Regulators questioned whether an element of their current rules could conflict with state law and how effectively their ethics standards could be enforced. At least one commissioner said the current rules had prompted him to decline some meetings for fear of falling out of compliance.
The Public Service Commission’s new rules were developed after concerns were raised about the meetings before a case over the merger bid of Great Plains Energy Inc. for Aquila Inc. in 2008. Ultimately, the commission approved the deal by a 2-1 vote, with one regulator recusing himself and another not participating in the vote.
In July, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld that merger after a lawsuit challenging the merger was filed by several industrial energy users and the Missouri public counsel.