Pepco, PSC criticized at forum -- Gazette.Net


Just hours after Pepco executives touted earnings and promised investors a push for higher rates, power reliability advocates castigated the utility and the Maryland system they say hurts customers.

Pepco representatives were not welcome Wednesday evening at a forum in North Bethesda, designed to educate candidates for state and local office about the current regulatory climate.

More than a dozen candidates listened to the advocates not only describe how the system works but also openly criticize Pepco for its lack of reliability and rising rates and the Maryland Public Service Commission, which is appointed to regulate it, for capitulating to the monopoly.

Stanley W. Balis, an attorney who has represented Montgomery County in cases before the commission, characterized the utility as “pathetically unreliable,” “amazingly tone-deaf” and a “knuckle dragger.” The process of utility regulation, he described as “unbalanced and skewed” in the utility’s favor, saying the PSC has an “appalling lack of oversight” and is “subservient” to the wishes of an imprudent and unreliable utility.

“PSC is not merely an umpire blandly calling balls and strikes between equal parties on an equal playing field,” Balis said. “The playing field is inherently not level, and accordingly, the PSC must aggressively regulate utility companies to ensure it operates in the public interest.”

For about an hour, Balis described state laws for utility regulation and told of the 2011 case where it came to light that Pepco has been one of the nation’s least reliable utilities.

For some candidates, the forum presented a story they had not heard before.

“I think the average consumer does not realize all the power Pepco has,” said George Zokle (D), a House of Delegates candidate in District 20.

For others, like Hrant Jamgochian (D), a District 16 House candidate, it echoed concerns heard on the campaign trail.

While Pepco and the PSC took most of the criticism, Somerset Town Councilwoman Cathy Pickar said the General Assembly has also played a part in creating the regulatory climate.

She pointed to a bill that allowed a gas utility to impose an upfront surcharge, and a measure that would have prevented utilities from charging customers for power, even when the power is out.

Pickar asked the candidates to pay attention to legislation in Annapolis, and to not fall under Pepco’s financial influence. According to state campaign finance data, Pepco has contributed to the campaign accounts of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) and general assembly leaders House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach.

The only candidate at the forum to have taken the utility’s money was Del. Susan Lee (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda. Lee said she sent the money back.

Gubernatorial candidate Charles Lollar (R) said he has not and will not take money from Pepco.

“These types of things cannot and will not happen in the future,” Lollar said. “We literally have residents that depend upon reliable energy. It’s a minimum.”

Particular concerning was the upfront surcharges, he said.

“There is no way I would perceive of giving anybody money before services are rendered, especially when your services are unreliable,” he said, adding Prince George’s County, which is also served by Pepco, needs a citizens organization like Powerupmontco.