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House hearing to be held to consider bill to reform how public utility regulators are appointed

Utility meter face
Renee Gaudet
/
Pixabay

A house bill that would change how Ohio appoints utility regulators will have its first hearing Wednesday.

House Bill 363 would require consumer representation on the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. The bill's sponsor, Cleveland-area state Rep. Daniel Troy, said the bill is necessary to bring more balance to the regulatory body that's grown too close to the industry it’s supposed to regulate.

"We need more transparency. We need more consumer representation,” Troy said.

The commission is meant to be a referee between utility companies and their customers. But Troy said when the referees are coming from one of the opposing teams, the scales get tipped.

"Too many of them have come out of the utility industry. So it's kind of like they're inclined to support entities that at one time they worked for,” Troy said.

Troy said in an interview Tuesday that the House Bill 6 corruption scandal demonstrated that the state's way of appointing public utility commissioners doesn't work for the customers of utility companies.

Commissioners are selected by the governor after a council makes non-binding recommendations.

The last chair of the commission, Sam Randazzo, worked as a consultant for utility companies, including FirstEnergy. The company lobbied state officials for Randazzo to be appointed and then admitted to paying him bribes. Randazzo was facing state and federal charges when he died by suicide earlier this year.

This bill would require the governor to pick at least one advocate for utility customers. Troy said without a requirement for a consumer voice on the commission, utility customers don’t have appropriate representation in their government.

"This representative government, which we have in the legislative branch. Is it really representing the folks that it's supposed to be representing? Or is it looking out for the best interest of the utilities and their shareholders?" Troy said.

The bill would also stop former utility employees from regulating their former co-workers.

“No commissioner appointed after the effective date of this amendment shall currently be or have previously been a representative or employee of, or have any relation to or business transaction with any entity or entity's parent, affiliate, or subsidiary that is subject to regulation by the public utilities commission,” the bill states.

The Democrat says he can't see how any of his colleagues in the Republican-controlled House could deny the need for reform after House Bill 6 and the revelations about Randazzo.

"We need to make some changes and I would be shocked, but I guess not surprised, if the end result was the General Assembly, or at least the committee saying that, ‘we don't think there's anything wrong right now that needs to be fixed.’ And I think that deserves a real, extensive, explanation as to why. 'Why do you (Republican representatives) feel that way?'" Troy said.

Troy said the bill is a first draft and he's open to other ideas for reform.

A bill with similar language had a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee.

Columbus state Sen. William DeMora and Toledo state Sen. Paula Hicks-Hudson are the bill’s cosponsors, and both are Democrats in the Republican-controlled Ohio Senate.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.