Utility regulators set Flagstaff meeting after debate

Utility regulators set a meeting in Flagstaff to hear public comments on the pending Arizona Public Service Co. rate increase after complaints from city officials that they were being left out of the process.

The Arizona Corporation Commission has been holding public comment sessions outside its Phoenix offices in the past year in an attempt to be more inclusive. APS is the biggest utility in the state, with customers from the Grand Canyon to Yuma.

On Wednesday, the commission will hold an APS public comment session in Clarkdale, even though no customers asked for that meeting. It will be at the Yavapai College campus at 6 p.m.

On April 10, a similar meeting will take place at a theater in Yuma at 254 S. Main St., and no members of the public asked for that meeting, either.

No member of the public asked for a meeting held recently in Douglas and attended by about 10 people, most of whom were either APS or city employees.

Meanwhile, officials in Flagstaff, the larger city to the north, have been asking for a similar meeting.

On Monday, the commission announced a 6 p.m. meeting for Monday, April 3 at Flagstaff City Hall.

Commissioner Robert Burns tried to request a Flagstaff meeting, but was shut down earlier this month. Before the meeting was announced, he threatened to travel to the city alone to listen to public comments if the other commissioners wouldn’t join him.

Commission Chairman Tom Forese said Monday that following a request from  Commissioner Doug Little, he saw enough demand for the Flagstaff meeting.

RELATED: APS rate hike has critical flaws, consumer groups say | APS, a helicopter and 6,000 miles of high-voltage power linesAPS settles on rate-hike request of $6 a month on average

‘Overstepping his authority’

The debate over a public hearing might seem trivial, but it reflects a deeper divide at the government office in charge of regulating utilities in Arizona.

Burns has been on a quest to get APS to disclose what it spent in the 2014 elections, when two of his fellow Republicans were elected to the commission. The other four commissioners strongly oppose those efforts, and say they could run afoul of APS’ First Amendment rights, as well as put a burden on that company that is not shared by others operating in the state.

The personal disagreement over APS political spending is spreading to other commission business, with infighting that rivals even the four years from 2008 to 2012, when two Democrats shared authority with three Republicans on the commission and frequently fought over renewable energy.

During public meetings, Burns and his fellow commissioners have had shouting matches and personal debates over the APS political-spending matter, public meeting locations, ethics policies, and even who should serve as chairman. Behind the scenes, there has been disagreement over staffing, with the director resigning last year at the request of some commissioners.

Forese became the chairman after a brief protest by Burns in January, and now Forese is declining to place items on meeting agendas, or take them off, when Burns requests. It’s been common practice at the commission for years to place items on the agenda and take them off when a single commissioner requests it.

That apparently changed when Burns tried to place a discussion of a Flagstaff public-comment meeting on the agenda. Forese wouldn’t allow it, and Burns protested, but not before the temporary staff attorney, Tim La Sota, told Burns he was speaking out of turn because his item was not on the agenda.

“I think he’s overstepping his authority by leaps and bounds,” Burns said of Forese.

Forese said he is acting within his authority.

“My job as I see it is to make the commission as efficient as possible,” Forese said. “I think Bob is an obstructionist. The fact that he’s got one issue when the commission deals with many important issues is a real problem. The question is, at what point does his banging that off-key drum hurt the rest of the commission?”

A trip to the border

Burns said after the debate over the Flagstaff meeting, the new director of the commission, Ted Vogt, and La Sota, visited Burns’ office and discussed setting meeting rules with him. The commission also has a hearing scheduled to discuss an ethics policy.

Burns also said he was frustrated by the trip to Douglas for a public meeting this month that commissioners Boyd Dunn and Andy Tobin used to visit the U.S. border. The commission issued a press release highlighting their trip and attention to border security and trade, neither of which are duties of the commission.

“They seem to be personally neglecting their job talking to ratepayers but happy to talk about jobs on the border, which is not under their authority,” Burns said.

Tobin’s staff adviser, Matt Gress, said the commissioners did conduct Corporation Commission business on the trip.

“In their visit to Douglas and Nogales, Commissioners Tobin and Dunn learned not only about the economic challenges and opportunities associated with those communities’ ports of entry, but they were also briefed on a planned international … transmission line in Nogales that will likely be brought forward by UNS Electric to the Commission later this year,” Gress said.

They also discussed water utility matters affecting the region, he said.

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