CPUC urged to do less business behind closed doors

by Steve Blum • ,

Not the way the game should be played.

Private meetings between utility lobbyists and commissioners “render governmental decision-making invisible to the public…make commission meetings merely ceremonial…[and] corrode government ethics” according to an outside review prepared for the California Public Utilities Commission. It was one of two reports that looked at how commissioners conduct business, ahead of a meeting on Tuesday where they will consider moderate changes to rules about one on one, private meetings with utilities and others that have pending cases.

Formally referred to as ex parte communications, closed door meetings are a routine part of commission business. According to the report, more than 20,000 have been held since 1992, with two nominally defunct telephone companies – Pacific Bell and GTE – the most aggressive over that time, based on the number of ex parte communications per case. Because legal names of companies are often retained in mergers, it’s not clear if the successor companies are included in those totals, but even if they’re not, Verizon and AT&T are ranked fourth and fifth most aggressive among regulated utilities and advocacy groups.

Number three spot on the list goes to the California Cable Television Association, a lobbying front for cable companies. That’s a bit odd, given that cable companies vigorously insist that the CPUC has no business whatsoever regulating them. Or maybe not so odd, given Comcast’s blithe assumption that it could work things out in the back room when public pressure to kill its erstwhile mega deal with Time Warner and Charter built to the breaking point. To their credit, commissioners quickly squashed that idea.

Those kinds of negotiations, though, “are a frequent, pervasive part of CPUC practice that sometimes determine the outcome of proceedings”, according to the report.