By RICK BRUNDRETT
The S.C. Public Service Commission members who approved nine rate hikes for the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project have performed flawlessly in their six-figure jobs – at least in the eyes of the legislative committee that essentially controls them.
A review by The Nerve of annual work-performance reviews done by the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) for fiscal years 2014 through 2016 found the exact cut-and-paste glowing language for all seven PSC members.
Here’s the conclusion of each evaluation: “Based on surveys of persons appearing before the Commission and Commission employees, Commissioner (insert name) is courteous to all persons appearing before (him or her), is impartial in (his or her) treatment of persons appearing before (him or her), has a positive effect on employee morale, and is respected by attorneys and persons appearing before the Commission. The Review Committee’s review revealed no evidence of unethical behavior by Commissioner (insert name).”
No performance reviews of PSC members were done last year in the wake of the collapse of the $9 billion V.C. Summer project, though under state law, PURC is supposed to submit annual evaluations of each PSC member to the General Assembly.
In recent years, the Legislature has received annual reports in November, December or January. The last published report to lawmakers was dated Dec. 5, 2016, for the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2016, though it is labeled on the General Assembly’s website as the “2017 Report to the General Assembly.”
Heather Anderson, a staff attorney for PURC, told The Nerve on Thursday she didn’t know why 2017 evaluations were not done, referring further questions to Oconee County Republicans Sen. Thomas Alexander and Bill Sandifer, the PURC chairman and vice-chairman, respectively. Alexander and Sandifer, who lead their respective chamber’s Labor, Commerce and Industry committees, did not respond to phone messages from The Nerve.
The current PSC commissioners, who each represent one of the state’s seven congressional districts, are Chairman Swain Whitfield, District 5; Vice-chairman Comer “Randy” Randall, District 3; John “Butch” Howard, District 1; Elliott Elam Jr., District 2; Elizabeth “Lib” Fleming, District 4; Robert “Bob” Bockman, District 6; and G. O’Neal Hamilton, District 7.
Whitfield’s annual salary is $109,762; other commissioners make $107,822, according to the state salary database.
The PURC’s rubber-stamping of PSC members’ work performance has been going on since at least fiscal year 2007, as The Nerve first reported in 2014. Since 2009, South Carolina Electric & Gas customers have seen nine rate hikes approved by the PSC for the construction of two now-abandoned nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer plant in Fairfield County.
SCE&G customers have paid a total of more than $1.7 billion toward the failed project. Whether they will receive refunds or will have to cover unpaid project costs remains to be seen. Virginia-based Dominion Energy has proposed a $14.6 billion merger involving Cayce-based SCANA Corp., the parent company of SCE&G, which partnered with state-owned utility Santee Cooper on the project.
PURC, a six-legislator, 10-member committee whose appointments are controlled by the House speaker and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, exerts tremendous control over the PSC, screening and nominating candidates for election by the General Assembly. Commissioners serve four-year terms; the terms for the District 2, 4 and 6 seats will expire on June 30.
Applications for those seats were received last summer, but the screening process was later suspended in the wake of the V.C. Summer debacle, as The Nerve reported in September. Anderson on Thursday didn’t know when public hearings or elections in the Legislature will be held for those seats, referring further questions to Alexander and Sandifer.
She also couldn’t say whether state law allows incumbent commissioners to keep their seats if elections aren’t held before their terms expire, known as a “holdover” status, which in recent years has been a common situation with county magistrate judges and members of various state boards and commissions.
A House bill (H. 4377) provides for the complete replacement of PSC commissioners this year and allows PURC to begin screening and nominating candidates as soon as the law is approved by the governor but before its effective date, according to a November analysis by the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.
PURC’s annual written performance reviews of PSC members are based in part on surveys that under state law are “anonymous and confidential,” and are distributed to “each party and its representatives appearing before the commission.” That means regulated utility companies seeking rate hikes can complete the surveys.
By law, the surveys must address such things as the commissioner’s “knowledge and application of substantive utility issues”; whether the commissioner showed “courtesy” and “attentiveness” during hearings; and whether there was an “absence of influence” by “political considerations,” “identities of lawyers,” or “identities of litigants.”
The law also requires that commission members be allowed to review a draft of their evaluations and “allowed an opportunity to be heard before the review committee before the final draft of the performance review is submitted to the General Assembly.”
The same procedure is required for PURC’s annual review of the PSC as a group.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. Reach him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter.