Charleston, South Carolina, was the host city for this year’s meeting of the Southeastern Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (SEARUC), June 10-13, 2018.
With hundreds in attendance, South Carolina PSC Chair Swain Whitfield presided over the meeting, themed Effective Utility Regulation: All in the Public Interest.
This year’s SEARUC event included a very user-friendly app on the Yapp platform (which was also used by the Mid-Atlantic Conference of Regulatory Utility Commissioners).
Chairman Whitfield created an atmosphere of collegiality, inclusiveness, professional discourse on various topics that are uppermost in the minds of regulators and stakeholders alike—all served with southern hospitality. He was sure to remind the attendees not to forget about the Puerto Rico Commission—also members of SEARUC—who are still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
Fellow South Carolina Commissioners were on hand as excellent moderators and SEARUC ambassadors: Hon. John E. “Butch” Howard, Comer H. "Randy" Randall, Elliott F. Elam, Jr., Elizabeth B. "Lib" Fleming, Robert T. "Bob" Bockman, and G. O'Neal Hamilton. Coordination and overall organization for the meeting was managed by SEARUC Executive Director Blake Kinney (Alabama Public Service Commission).
Inspired Keynotes: Pride and Presidents
NARUC President John Betkoski III and former NARUC President and FERC Commissioner Colette Honorable presented keynote addresses at the meeting.
Along with providing an update on NARUC activities, President Betkoski’s address referenced the state motto of South Carolina: While I breathe, I hope. He said that:
“Hope is good. Because we do hope that one day there will be a greater appreciation for the hard work and commitment required of utility regulators such as yourselves.”
He commended the members of SEARUC, in particular, the embattled South Carolina regulators, for their diligence and focus on serving the public interest while under public scrutiny. The context in which today’s regulators operate has changed from years past—“It’s a completely different world” than when he began his career as a regulator 22 years ago, Betkoski said.
Colette Honorable followed and started out with a reminder of what makes the South unique: good southern hospitality, manners, taking time to send hand-written notes, and great hair, she joked.
As regulators, she said that “We’ve learned that our diversity is our strength. At SEARUC, we have it all—every ideology, every position, every favorite source and resource. We pride ourselves in assuring stable low rates for the long term.”
She also told the group, “We protect the least among us,”
Issues such as integrated resource planning, her unwavering “all-of-the-above” approach, and nuclear energy peppered her address. “Nuclear is part of our future,” she said.
Closing the Digital Divide: Free and Open Access
Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, also a Commissioner Emerita from the South Carolina Public Service Commission, delivered an impassioned speech on Monday. Although she has stepped down from the FCC, her commitment to ensuring that all communities have access to communications technology, specifically affordable broadband, is unwavering.
Members of state and federal government, she said, “must continue to work together and do it better.”
State Universal Service Programs should “work in tandem with federal programs to diminish the digital divide” and should include broadband, said Clyburn.
The day of her presentation—June 11—was also the day that net neutrality was repealed, which she noted in her comments. “The Internet must remain free and open.”
She iterated various consequences of the net neutrality repeal and left the audience with a pointed statement: “The cost of digital inequality is way too high.”
In his overview, he noted that the national security strategy is designed to protect the network—recognizing that U.S. adversaries “can cause disruptions.”
He also provided an update on efforts in Puerto Rico, where the DOE still has a “strong presence” and 2,200 generators in place.
Family, Fairness, and Patience
A highlight of the meeting occurred on the second day, when past presidents David Wright and Colette Honorable joined current NARUC President Betkoski and Commissioner Whitfield for a chat onstage that combined a bit of levity with shared leadership perspectives.
Honorable noted that a highlight of watching Wright’s recent Nuclear Regulatory Commission swearing in was hearing him refer to members of NARUC as his family. “It was really touching,” she said.
President Betkoski noted that during the protracted, lengthy period (13 months) waiting to be confirmed to the NRC, “David always remained so upbeat” and asked Honorable, as an experienced federal regulator, if she had advice for Commissioner Wright as he stepped into his new role.
“Be true to who you are,” she advised, and, acknowledging Commissioner Wright’s personality, she added that, “D.C. won’t change who you are.” She also said to “surround yourself with good people” and she drew from past advice she was given from others, which was “to surround myself with people with skills I lacked.”
Looking back on how his interest in nuclear issues began many years ago, Commissioner Wright credited former NARUC staffer Brian O'Connell as someone who provided him with much information on nuclear energy, along with NARUC Executive Director Greg White (as a Michigan Commissioner), who kept him up to date on nuclear developments.
He touched on personal issues and as many people know, he is a colon cancer survivor. “I planned the SEARUC meeting while I was in the chemo chair,” he said, referring to his time as past president of SEARUC.
His daughter is also a colon cancer survivor. “This was the place—on opening day, during my tenure [as SEARUC president], I walked off the stage…and learned that my daughter had collapsed and she was stage 3C colon cancer at 27.”
The help and support of members of NARUC and others helped him get through those ordeals and he continues to “pay it forward” by offering support and advice to others.
“We are family—and we’re going to continue to be,” he said.
It was noted that he is the first state commissioner to be an NRC commissioner and said that “NARUC is going to have more direct involvement” with the NRC.
When an audience member asked, “How does being a baseball umpire make you a better commissioner?” he said “You have to learn how to balance,” adding that “You also develop a very thick skin.”
He joked that former president Phil Jones was told that he would do well because his term “fell between what’s Wright and Honorable.”
Ethics & Getting it Right
The SEARUC meeting concluded its theme with an ethics discussion and a panel that asked if the commissions were getting it right.
It is not unusual for state officials to face tough questions and scrutiny concerning their activities in office. Some state commissions have recently received more than their fair share of inquiry, making the ethics panel quite timely. Titled Lobbyist Interaction & Campaign Contributions—Ethical Considerations, the discussion was led by Meghan Walker, director of the South Carolina Ethics Commission, who covered important topics such as:
The audience shared their experiences, as several states have different rules governing commissioners’ activities and communications. One member observed that sometimes it’s about “fearless conversation versus guarded conversation.” Key takeaways were:
As an ethics official, Walker said that it is inappropriate to “litigate in the media” and that no retroactive actions should be taken when commissioners are following the advice or direction given to them by ethics officials, even if that direction was incorrect when given.
South Carolina PSC Commissioner Bob Bockman asked the next panel How Do We Get it Right? Commissioners from Georgia (Hon Lauren ‘Bubba’ McDonald), Tennessee (Hon. Ken Hill), and Kentucky (Hon. Talina Mathews), to provide some insights on how they work to achieve balance, maintain their principles, and ensure that they are operating at the highest standards on behalf of all interested parties. Participating in the discussion was Tonya Baer, from the Public Utility Counsel of Texas, who offered perspectives from the consumer side.
In response to a question from Commissioner Bockman, Baer said, “It would be helpful to have someone with a background advocating for consumers on the commission, just to give that perspective,” adding that commissioners usually hear from the utilities and the large industrial customers, so it would be helpful “to get everyone’s viewpoint.”
So, just how do you get it right as a commissioner? A few sound bites follow.
“What we do, couldn’t be done without staff members who are the subject-matter experts,” said Commissioner Mathews.
“We depend heavily on staff,” said Commissioner Hill. “You must depend on people who know more than you do.”
“It takes a positon of listening, understanding, and compromise in order to be effective,” said Commissioner McDonald. “It’s like having a 600-piece puzzle without a picture. All of the parts are laid out.”
The commissioners are acutely aware that getting it right is complex, requiring input from many perspectives and, as Commissioner McDonald noted, listening helps. “It pays to listen well and to process it.”
“You make decisions that have 30-year impacts,” said Commissioner Mathews. Regulators “don’t know immediately if you’ve made the right decision—you just make the best decision with the information you have available.”
For some, a little “larceny” helps.
“I come to a SEARUC meeting or I go to a NARUC meeting—and I steal,” said Commissioner McDonald. “I steal from other commissioners and other experts and I take that [information] home with me.”
Along with these aspects, Commissioner Hill stated that “I think it is important to have the human component.”
Changing of the Guard: Building on a Great Foundation
The next SEARUC meeting will be located in Alabama.
— Submitted by Regina L. Davis, NARUC Director of Communications