Part Two of a Series
If you live in Wisconsin and want to talk to Public Service Commission of Wisconsin Chairperson Ellen Nowak or another commissioner about a utility’s proposal to, say, double the monthly fee for residential rooftop solar – essentially making it unaffordable – you’re invited to submit a comment through the PSC website. On the site, you’ll see this:
But that rule doesn’t apply to everyone.
All you have to do to get your concerns before Ms. Nowak is make an appointment with her Executive Assistant Bob Seitz, and he can relay them for you. No one else has to know.
Ex Parte No More
You see, ex parte rules don’t apply to Seitz. They didn’t apply to his predecessor, R.J. Pirlot, either.
On July 7, 2013, the Wisconsin state legislature neutered the ex parte law that required all parties to a disputed utility rate case before the Public Services Commission of Wisconsin to be given the “opportunity to participate in any communications.”
Most states take ex parte violations very seriously. Here’s how it works. When a regulated utility, such as a power company, wants to raise customer rates, ex parte rules go into effect. That means, whenever a utility commissioner, administrative law judge, or other staff member communicates about or receives a communication about a contested issue, all of the parties to the controversy must be present or informed in a public hearing or in an email with a long distribution list.
But a year after Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law that allows for any employee of the Public Service Commission – other than a hearing examiner or a commissioner – to be exempted from ex parte laws.
It could, theoretically, allow the chairperson or other commissioners of the Public Service Commission to give instructions to Executive Assistant Bob Seitz, and send him to talk to whomever they choose, including utility lobbyists. From there, Mr. Seitz would have free rein to gather facts, formulate plans, communicate a response, and report back to Ms. Nowak.
Who would ever know? Isn’t the law grand!
Is this why Bob Seitz – the chief operating officer and principal advisor who assists in the development and implementation of long range goals – is said to be the most powerful person at the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin?
But don’t worry. If you can’t get a meeting, you can always submit your comment on the website.
(Upcoming: Part 3 will explore behind-the-scenes meetings at the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.)
Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from pro-clean energy philanthropies and donors.