Upcoming Public Service Commission Election: A Question of Ethics

By REBECCA SMITH

On Nov. 6, Georgia voters will decide which candidates to vote for Public Service Commission. Although many people may not care or may not know anything about the Public Service Commission, the commission and the people who make up that commission are vitally important to the people of Georgia.

So what does a Public Service Commissioner do? According to their website, the job of a Public Service Commissioner in Georgia is to, “exercise its authority and influence to ensure that consumers receive safe, reliable and reasonably priced telecommunications, electric and natural gas services from financially viable and technically competent companies.” Or in simpler terms, they regulate utilities in Georgia so ratepayers aren’t taken advantage of.

And how does the Public Service Commission work exactly? Here’s a breakdown:

There are five elected Public Service Commissioners in Georgia who serve on the Commission, each from different districts (1 through 5). Even though each commissioner has to be from a specific district, they are responsible for regulating utilities for all of Georgia. Each member serves staggered, six-year terms, and all five of the currently elected members of the commission are Republican.

District 5 Election

One of the positions up for election this year is for District 5, and the race is between Stan Wise, the incumbent, and Libertarian hopeful, David Staples.

Wise was elected to the Public Service Commission in 1994 and has served on the commission since then. His website states that Wise has “been a leader in reducing utility costs through conservative fiscal management and paying down old debt on utility plants and infrastructure.” One of Wise’s accomplishments while in office was working to pay off Georgia Power Company’s fuel cost balance burden on customers. If re-elected this year, it will be Wise’s fourth consecutive term in office.

Running against a Republican in Georgia can be a challenging task, but running against a Republican incumbent is even harder.

Staples, who is running as a Libertarian, said he was asked to run.  The Republicans and the Democrats in Georgia have specific filing deadlines, which are different from the deadline for the Independent and third-party candidates. After the filing deadline for Republicans and Democrats had already passed, Staples said he was approached by someone who encouraged him to run.

“I took a look at the race, I talked to my wife, I talked to a couple of people in the political field, and they all said go for it,” said Staples. “So I figured I might as well jump in, throw my name in the race, see what happens, and work as hard as I can to try to win.”

Ethics on the Election Agenda

One of the main issues in the upcoming election is, according to Staples, one of ethics. He said that the majority of Wise’s campaign funds come from the executives, the lobbyists, and the attorneys belonging to the utilities that he’s supposed to be regulating.

“At the end of June there were $10,000 worth of donations between Troutman Sanders and their attorneys, and two days later he’s voting on those very same attorneys’ case,” said Staples. “It certainly looks very fishy and certainly looks like a conflict of interest.”

The situation Staples is referring to happened in June of this year. On June 19, the Troutman Sanders law firm gave Wise a $5,000 contribution; later that same day, four Troutman Sanders attorneys individually gave contributions totaling $5,000 as well. The issue? The Troutman Sanders law firm argues cases on behalf of Georgia Power to the Public Service Commission. Two days after the contributions, Wise voted in favor of saving Georgia Power $3.2 million in expenses involving outages at some nuclear power plants – and charging ratepayers for the cost instead.

“Of course for Georgia Power that’s a pretty good return. Put down $10,000 and get back $3.2 million… I think any business person would be jealous to get back that kind of return,” Staples said.

Another issue that has a few people raising eyebrows is that Wise’s son works for the Troutman Sanders law firm in Washington. In the June 20, 2012, edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Wise responded to people claiming this as a conflict of interest.

“A conflict would only exist if my son worked for a utility or represented a utility before the PSC. Neither is true,” Wise said. “It would be a stretch to suggest that a conflict in the discharge of my duties is apparent because my son practices non-utility law in Washington.”

Empowered Voters

Georgia voter Brandon Tillotson is not surprised to hear this.

“Sounds like your typical government corruption. The reason the common American is — is because of the politicians we elect,” Tillotson said. “Now, I voted Libertarian in the ’04 election, so I’m familiar with their stances on government. Out with the corruption; in with a fresh voice of the people.”

Another Georgia voter, Ana Masalaney, expressed a similar sentiment.

“It’s typical politics. Legislatures and lobbyists are constantly bribed and paid for by companies that want someone who will vote with them whenever they need it,” Masalaney said. “It’s up to voters to really research who’s backing their politicians so they can make informed decisions.”

 

 

 

 

 

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