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Review Clears Maine PUC, But Critics Persist
10/28/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A government watchdog agency in Augusta has found that the Public Utilities commission, which regulates power, gas and water companies in Maine, is well within the law in how it handles consumer complaints. But the review also concluded that the PUC's quasi-judicial process can be intimidating and confusing to the average Mainer. Several critics of the commission told lawmakers today that the process is more than confusing, it's actually biased against consumers.

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Review Clears Maine PUC, But Critics Persist Listen
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The lengthy review by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability found that the PUC's process for addressing consumer concerns could be more user-friendly. And while that review found no actual conflicts of interest within the PUC, there could be cases of perceived conflict.

"Those appearances are not appearances -- they're actuality," said Robert Bemis, of Levant, who has been a long-time critic of the way the PUC handled his complaints over how Central Maine Power caries out power connections to new homes.

Bemis was among those who came to testify before the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee, which took up the OPEGA review on Monday.

"The fact there is such a severe conflict of interest in the PUC commission and the staff," Bemis said, "and the way that they've handled this thing: All of these people are ex-CMP employees; there are three different attorneys that have come in to be chairmen of the PUC who are ex-employees of CMP. That is so biased and that is so wrong."

Wrong, says Bemis, because the past relationships create a culture of cooperation that is not in the consumer's best interest. Like Bemis, many of those who appeared before the committee have been on on the losing end of controversial issues that have been before the PUC.

Ed Friedman. of Bowdoinham, is the lead complainant in the ongoing legal challenge of so-called "smart meter" devices installed throughuot Maine by CMP. Last year, Maine's highest court ruled that the PUC failed to adequately address safety concerns about those devices, though the ruling had no immediate impact on more than 600,000 smart meters already in place in homes and businesses across the state.

Friedman said he was disappointed with OPEGA's review of a PUC process that he says is fraught with conflicts. Friedman cites a recent decision by PUC chairman Thomas Welch to recuse himself from a case involving Nestle Waters - the owner of Poland Spring water - and the owners of the Fryeburg utility that supplies the water.

And Friedman says Welch isn't the only member of the commission with prior ties to Nestle. Another commissioner, Mark Vannoy, recused himself from the case last year.

"The Nestle-Fryeburg water conflict right now - a perfect example of how conflict within the PUC has basically hamstrung the agency," Friedman said. "I don't know what the status is this week, but basically, I think everyone but Commissioner (Dave) Littell is conflicted out on that case so you can't really hold a hearing or hold a proceeding."

PUC Chairman Tom Welch says the commissioners go to great lengths to avoid involving themselves in cases in which prejudice or bias could become a factor, but he understands that some people will have doubts.

"It is a little discouraging when I hear a certain amount of confusion, or so much what I would consider to be misperception, of decisions that are made on good faith on difficult evidence and difficult cases being translated into sort of pre-conceived notions or bias," said Tom Welch, chair of the PUC.

Welch says he agrees that the process for consumers could be more transparent. He says he'd support the creation of an ombudsman within the agency, in addition to the PUC's public advocate. He declined to discuss the details of the cases cited by critics.

"When people don't get the decision that they want, they may look for reasons other than the merits of the case - but I understand that impulse," Welch said.

The House and Senate chairs of the government oversight committee say they will consider the public comments during a future meeting, and decide whether policy changes at the PUC should be recommended by the Legislature.

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