Local legislator asks for better public access to utility regulation processes

Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, recently asked the state’s Public Service Commission whether it could find ways to be more open to the public.

The PSC regulates public utilities in Wyoming, but the work the agency does is so complex that it can be difficult for people to track, Case said during a recent meeting of the legislature’s Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee.

For example, he said, the agency requires utility companies to file an Integrated Resource Plan – a document that has no direct impact on consumer rates but that represents “kind of a slippery slope,” potentially leading to a request for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity related to a proposal in the plan.

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The certificate doesn’t affect rates either, Case said, but it’s “another proceeding on this slope” that eventually can result in an increase in consumer rates.

“It leads to a fait accompli for rate payers,” he said.

Confidentiality

Case asked the PSC representatives in attendance at last month’s meeting if there might be a way to engage the public more effectively in agency processes before a rate increase is officially on the table – because currently, he said, “it is a very difficult environment (for) ordinary citizens to participate in.”

“It is astoundingly difficult to do it,” he said. “It is a huge undertaking.”

One idea he offered would involve a review of the PSC’s confidentiality rules.

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“I think there’s a feeling, at least among some people, that we protect too much information – that we routinely protect information that’s kind of necessary for others to evaluate things,” he said. “It’s not getting to the right people, (and) I’m wondering if there is a fix within the public records act or within your rules.

“Do you think we’re leaning too much on protecting stuff we don’t always need to protect? Is there a way to establish a framework for protection or not-protection in non-contested situations (or) more routine situations where the public kind of misses this?”

PSC deputy chair Mike Robinson replied that the situation isn’t “easy” to resolve because the agency receives “a lot of filings requesting confidential treatment.”

Utility companies tend to “over-ask” when it comes to confidentiality, PSC chair Chris Petrie explained.

“We’re never contacting a public utility or anybody else … and saying, ‘Hey, we don’t think you’ve indicated enough of this information to be held confidential,’” he said. “It’s always the opposite. And that’s a function that our staff serves. … We will try to make sure (that) everything except the very most necessary secret is made available to the public.”

Petrie acknowledged, however, that PSC processes are “incremental” in nature, as Case had mentioned, involving “a long chain of filings” that “all end up being related, maybe across decades in some cases.”

“I could see where, if too much information is obscured from the public by being held confidential, that too will accumulate across the course of that incremental process,” Petrie said. “So we understand that we need to be as careful and as strict as we can about that. …

“We try to do that, but I know that we’re not perfect, and it’s probably something that we can improve on.”

PSC commissioner Mary Throne said the agency struggles “constantly” with questions about transparency as it works to “improve (public) participation” in its processes while also maintaining its position as a neutral party.

But, she added, “We could be more user friendly, in my opinion.”

Wyoming Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who chaired the meeting, concluded the conversation by saying it appears “commissioners are working on it internally.”

“Maybe we can all agree that maybe we need to try to put more information out,” Case said.

For more information call the PSC at 777-7427.

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