Public Utilities Commission
refuses to answer why
By Logan Hall
Ojai citizens are fed up with the California Public Utilities Commission. At their water meeting Wednesday night, Ojai Friends of Locally Owned Water, a non-profit organization comprised of Ojai citizens, was clear in its message to the public agency that approves utility company rate increases.
“We want out of the PUC system,” said F.L.O.W. representative Ryan Blatz to the crowd of about 200 citizens and government officials who had gathered at the Nordhoff High School gym. “They are the real problem here.”
Blatz’s declaration came after F.L.O.W. found that Ojai was not included in the PUC’s public participation hearings that will be held in eight other cities in California later this month, with the closest to Ojai being in Carson. The meetings are designed by the PUC to hear the citizens’ concerns about water rate increases applied for by Golden State Water Company.
A recent series of conversations via phone and e-mail between the Ojai Valley News and PUC representatives gives some insight into the agency’s operation. Repeated attempts by the OVN beginning Nov. 3 to get a reason for Ojai’s public hearing rejection were met with resistance and hostility by PUC staff. When asked point-blank what the specific reason was for Ojai’s rejection, PUC spokesman Andrew Kotch gave a generic, confusing response that listed vague and non-specific “criteria” that the PUC looks at when deciding on where to hold hearings.
“Factors considered included: 1) letters and complaints from customers, 2) communities that represent various Golden State service areas (i.e., urban-rural, coastal-desert, northern or Southern California, etc.), and 3) proximity to other Golden State service areas,” read Kotch’s statement.
When it was pointed out to Kotch that his response did not answer the question regarding specific circumstances regarding Ojai’s rejection, he claimed that he had not been asked that question. He was then asked for the second time — along with several other questions —- why, specifically, Ojai was rejected after Ojai’s assistant city manager Steve McClary filed a formal protest with the PUC against Golden State’s rate increase application and directly requested a public hearing in Ojai. In order to clarify that he had the correct questions, Kotch was then asked to read back the questions after he claimed he would find answers. “I don’t have them written down,” he replied sharply after a brief silence.
The OVN sent the questions to Kotch’s supervisor, Terrie Prosper, the PUC’s communications director, along with a request for an explanation of Kotch’s behavior. For the third time, the PUC was asked why, specifically, Ojai’s request for a hearing was rejected. Prosper replied by giving an identical response to Kotch’s attempt. After it was brought to her attention that the question, along with others that were asked, was not answered, she was asked a fourth time about Ojai’s rejection.
This time Prosper responded by defending the PUC’s position, still neglecting to answer the specific questions asked by the OVN. “It’s not that cities were ‘rejected,’” read her response, “but rather the other cities were chosen given the criteria I outlined in my original message.”
The OVN then sent her a simple question on Tuesday afternoon: “Why is the California PUC, a public agency, refusing to give direct answers to questions that are directly regarding public concerns?” As of print time Thursday, the OVN had not received a response from the PUC.
One of the excuses given for rejecting Ojai’s request was that “many other cities” had also requested hearings and that the PUC could not hold hearings for them all. PUC documents relating to the case, however, show that Ojai is one of only four cities to formally protest and request a hearing, although eight cities were chosen for public hearings.
Members of F.L.O.W. and Ojai city officials are also quick to point out that the PUC is holding hearings at both Apple Valley and Barstow, which are about 30 miles apart. The closest meeting to Ojai, is being held in Carson, which is about 100 miles from Ojai with an estimated two-hour drive. F.L.O.W. members and city officials are also concerned that, while Apple Valley has filed a formal protest and request for a hearing, Barstow hasn’t done either. The PUC has refused to answer questions regarding these concerns.
However, there is still hope for Ojai’s bid to have a PUC public hearing.
The Department of Ratepayer Advocates, an agency that helps regulate the PUC’s decisions, regarding Ojai’s concerns sent a recent e-mail to the PUC. Salina Shek, the DRA’s co-counsel, wrote to the PUC regarding Ojai. “DRA conducted a site visit to Ojai on October 5, 2011 and observed signs on many customers’ front lawns stating their unhappiness with Golden State’s rates,” read the e-mail. “Also, while in Ojai, DRA noticed two articles in the local newspaper and magazines regarding Golden State Water Company’s proposed rate increases. DRA asks that you add the City of Ojai to the PPH (public participation hearing) list given the amount of concerns/interests regarding the GRC (general rate case).”
-McClary said that city officials are not happy with the PUC’s decision either. “We wanted a hearing here,” he said. “We asked for a hearing here. We’re very disappointed that the PUC won’t even hold a meeting anywhere close to Ojai.”
F.L.O.W. representatives told the crowd at Wednesday’s meeting that citizen participation is crucial when dealing the PUC and other government agencies. Blatz, in no subtle terms, emphasizes that people need to be sending letters to the government, to express their concerns and show officials how serious the issue is.
“Everyone needs to write those letters,” said Blatz. “Send them to the PUC. Send them to your senators and assemblymen. Tell them that we are here and we’re not going away.”
To contact the PUC, send e-mails to email@example.com or write to the Commission’s Docket Office, 505 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA 94102.