Legislative Panel: S.C. PSC Can Do No Wrong

March 26, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Good job

Most parents probably would love it if their children’s school report cards were as good as the annual reviews of S.C. Public Service Commission members.

The Nerve found not one negative comment – or even a single suggestion for improvement – in any written performance evaluations of the seven-member commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities, including the setting of utility rates for residential and business customers, covering fiscal years 2007 through 2013.

The annual reviews are done by the “State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee,” a 10-member legislatively appointed panel that includes six state lawmakers. The committee nominates Public Service Commission (PSC) candidates for election by the S.C. General Assembly.

Six of the seven PSC members each currently receive an annual salary of $102,382, according to a state salary database. Commission Chairman Gordon “O’Neal” Hamilton makes $104,286 yearly. Commissioners serve four-year terms, which are staggered.

Whether the PSC is working for the benefit of Palmetto State residents is a matter of debate.

As of December, South Carolina had the nation’s 19th-highest average retail price of electricity in the residential sector – 11.52 cents per kilowatt hour – according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The average retail residential prices ranged from a high of 36.58 cents per kilowatt hour in Hawaii to a low of 8.14 cents per kilowatt hour in Oklahoma.

South Carolina’s ranking in December was higher than any other Southeast state, federal records show. In comparison, North Carolina, which ranked 30th, had an average retail residential electricity price of 10.48 cents per kilowatt hour; in Georgia, which ranked 34th, the average price was 10.21 cents.

The annual written performance evaluations of the S.C. PSC members are based in part, as stated in the reviews, on surveys of “persons appearing before the commission and commission employees.” Under state law (Section 58-3-530 (5) of the S.C. Code of Laws), those surveys are “anonymous and confidential,” and are distributed to “each party and its representatives appearing before the commission.”

Those allowed to complete surveys include regulated utility companies seeking rate hikes.

By law, the surveys must address at “a minimum” the following areas:

  • Knowledge and application of substantive utility issues; ability to perceive relevant issues;
  • Absence of influence by political considerations;
  • Absence of influence by identities of lawyers;
  • Absence of influence by identities of litigants;
  • Courtesy to all persons appearing before the commission; and
  • Temperament and demeanor in general, preparation for hearings, and attentiveness during hearings.

State law also requires that commission members be allowed to review their evaluations and “be given the opportunity to be heard before” the Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) before final drafts of their evaluations are submitted to the General Assembly.

The Nerve this week left written or phone messages seeking comment from the six legislative PURC members: Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee and the PURC chairman; Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg and Luke Rankin, R-Horry; Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee and the PURC vice chairman; and Reps. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg and Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon.

None responded. Alexander and Sandifer are chairmen of their respective chamber’s Labor, Commerce and Industry (LCI) committees, which deal with issues affecting utilities.

The four non-legislator PURC members are Elizabeth Atwater, Erik Ebersole, John Steven Simmons and Helen Zeigler.

The Nerve earlier this month revealed transcripts of a PURC screening hearing last year in which Sandifer questioned a female candidate about how her three underage children would be affected if she became a PSC commissioner, and if she had discussed her candidacy with her children.

That candidate, Nancy S. Campbell of Piedmont, wasn’t nominated, though the screening committee rated her as “outstanding” and nominated her in 2008 when she first applied for a seat, The Nerve’s review found.

Under state law, the Public Utilities Review Committee is made up of three House members, including the LCI chairman or his designee; three senators, including the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman or his designee; and four non-legislators – their appointments split between the House speaker and Senate Judiciary chairman. The House speaker and Senate Judiciary chairman appoint their respective legislative members of the committee.

PURC attorney Andy Fiffick declined to comment about the annual evaluation of PSC members when contacted this week by The Nerve. Heather Anderson, another PURC attorney, told The Nerve Tuesday morning that she had received The Nerve’s written questions but didn’t know if either she or Alexander had time to answer them before publication of this story.

Among other things, The Nerve asked Alexander and Anderson about how many surveys are given annually on average and what percentage of the returned surveys were from utility companies regulated by the PSC.

Contacted this week by The Nerve, Jocelyn Boyd, the PSC’s chief clerk and administrator, referred most questions about the PURC evaluation process to the review committee, though when asked how often annual reviews of PSC members were changed before the Legislature received final drafts, she replied, “To my knowledge, I can’t recall any instances when they have been changed.”

The Nerve on Tuesday left phone messages seeking comment from Hamilton, the PSC chairman, and Vice Chairwoman Nikiya “Nikki” Hall, but received no response. The other five commissioners are John “Butch” Howard, Brent McGee, Comer “Randy” Randall, Elizabeth “Lib” Fleming and Swain Whitfield.

Recent annual reviews of PSC members concluded that each commissioner is “courteous to all persons appearing before him (or her), is impartial in his (or her) treatment of persons appearing before him, has a positive effect on employee morale, and is respected by attorneys and persons appearing before the commission.”

The Public Utilities Review Committee also typically noted that their evaluations “revealed no evidence of unethical behavior” by commissioners.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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