Defensive posture at DPS

March 23, 2016  Rutland Herald Opinion

“Everything is OK.” That seems to be the conclusion of the recent report and testimony by the Vermont Department of Public Service in responding to a legislative order to study whether its advocacy unit is best representing ratepayers.

Unfortunately, everything is not OK, and both its report and public comments, while defending the status quo, actually prove how it is failing at that mission. It shows that the department does not serve, in any fashion, as a ratepayer advocate. In fact, it sees its mission as focused on promoting the “public good” rather than “ratepayer interests,” particularly residential and small commercial customer interests. When our public advocate backs the utility companies time after time, something is clearly wrong.

For starters, the department provides no critical self-examination. It does not examine its actions over the past several years, nor how those actions have led to a serious crisis of confidence in the department’s activities before the Vermont Public Service Board. The fact that the Legislature requested a study of this nature suggests there is a problem that needs fixing. Instead, the department offers a report, testimony and op-eds that simply blame these purported problems on “public perception,” not on any actions or activities undertaken by the department over the past several years.

In other words, any problems associated with the department’s actions are not attributable to the department itself, but instead on residential ratepayers that are, presumably, incapable of understanding their own best interests and how those interests should be advocated before the PSB. With the department as a partner, it’s no wonder the utility companies in Vermont always seem to win out over ratepayers.

The department further claims that its office of public advocate is the most cost-effective, independent and accountable structure in the U.S. The report effectively concludes that there is nothing that can be learned or adopted from the best practices of other states, since, presumably, the department organization and activities represent the model of best practices when it comes to ratepayer advocacy.

The Legislature should reject this notion out of hand, as well as the department’s conclusions that the only problem associated with ratepayer advocacy in Vermont is with a public perception. Instead, the Legislature should send the department back to the drawing board. What’s needed is a more meaningful analysis, conducted by an independent third party, that focuses on identifying the nature and sources of the problems experienced in Vermont over the past several years and offers an administrative structure for ratepayer advocacy that corrects for these considerable and patent offenses to ratepayer interests.

Sadly, the 60-page report and testimony will be unhelpful to the Legislature in developing any solutions to the current crises in confidence. If a real analysis had been conducted it would show that the department’s actions have been entirely unresponsive and unaccountable to ratepayer interests and that its ratepayer advocacy functions need to be removed and placed just about anywhere else. At a minimum, it needs to be separated from a department that is falling down on the job and is beholden to both its utility “partners” and the governor’s administration.

Vermonters deserved a good-faith effort at critical self-examination of this important ratepayer advocacy role. Instead, we get a clearly defensive posture from a state agency that believes it is beyond reproach and that everything is OK. Clearly, something is wrong, and it needs to be fixed, but the department appears incapable of acknowledging that there are problems and unwilling to offer any meaningful solutions.

AARP Vermont hopes the Legislature and other policymakers recognize these problems and the obvious shortcomings of the department’s self-evaluation. We strongly urge lawmakers to seek out independent, expert guidance and analysis that accurately identifies the advocacy mission and recognizes there may actually be a better way to serve Vermont’s ratepayers.

Greg Marchildon is state director of AARP Vermont.

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