PHOENIX — State utility regulators swore in a new member Tuesday and elected a new chairman amid controversies that could mean open hostilities on the panel.
In a ceremony filled with speeches and congratulations, Boyd Dunn, newly elected in November, was seated on the Arizona Corporation Commission as incumbents Bob Burns and Andy Tobin began new four-year terms. They join Tom Forese and Doug Little, who were elected in 2014. All are Republicans.
But when Tobin nominated Forese to succeed Little as chairman, Burns refused to go along.
Burns said after the meeting that Tobin and Forese had improperly attempted to fire a commission employee and then effectively pressured that person’s supervisor to quit. Burns said that, in turn, resulted in Jodi Jerich, who as executive director had the exclusive power of hiring and firing ACC staff, being forced out.
“It sent a ripple through the commission,” Burns told Capitol Media Services of the personnel actions. “It ruined the morale of the whole place.”
Forese said that wasn’t exactly what happened, but he declined to go into specifics. He acknowledged he was part of the decision to replace Jerich, saying that’s just what happens with a change of administration. Jerich did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Jerich was replaced Tuesday as executive director by former Tucson GOP legislator Ted Vogt who, after losing his 2012 re-election bid, held political positions for Republican Govs. Jan Brewer and Doug Ducey.
Burns’ new allegations come on top of existing battles within the commission. Those include Burns refusing to drop his bid to find out how much of the more than $3 million spent to elect Forese and Little in 2014 came from regulated utility Arizona Public Service or Pinnacle West Capital Corp., its parent company. Burns has issued subpoenas, but the companies will neither confirm nor deny roles in getting Forese and Little elected and are fighting the subpoenas in court.
Forese, for his part, appears anxious to put the whole issue to bed.
“Frankly, elections are elections and now it’s time to govern,” he told Capitol Media Services. He said having the commission spending time and effort on figuring out what happened in 2014 “is a tremendous distraction and a disservice to the people that we represent.”
Forese said Burns is obsessed with not just the 2014 campaign but also his push to forbid anonymous donations to political committees that put money into future commission races.
“If I ask you, ‘What do you think about the water crisis and it’s coming to Arizona,’ and you respond, ‘Dark money,’ and I ask you about telecom regulation and the possibility for there to be potential money in the kitty that can be used for education, something people are talking about, and you respond ‘APS,’ we have a real communication problem,” Forese said.
Burns, however, is not giving up in his bid to get public disclosure, both retroactively through the subpoenas and prospectively with a court ruling that commissioners are entitled to that information.
Despite their differences, Forese made it clear he’s not oblivious to the controversies that have surrounded the five-member panel for the last few years. That includes not only who might have influenced previous elections but also whether commissioners have been less than transparent in their dealings.
Some of that came to a head with a fight over a request for public records from former Commissioner Bob Stump, most of which were destroyed and the balance of which a special investigator for the Attorney General’s Office concluded were not public business.
On Tuesday, Forese promised both to institute a code of ethics at the commission and to institute new rules to turn the public-records process on its head.
“There is more we can do to communicate the business of the commission to the public,” he said in his prepared remarks on becoming chairman. Forese said the current system requires anyone interested in seeing what commission members have been doing to put in requests for specific public records.
“Perhaps we can routinely upload public records to a server so the public may more easily access records such as emails and calendars,” he said. Details, such as whether text mssages would be included, have yet to be worked out, he said.
Speaking later, Forese said it comes down to a matter of public confidence in the panel, which regulates not only the rates of investor-owned utilities but also railroad and pipeline safety, the sale of securities and the registration of corporations. “I think transparency is greatly needed at the commission,” he said.
Forese, in his inaugural speech as chairman, laid out several other priorities for the panel.
“We have an opportunity to encourage the sale of energy to Mexico” in a way that benefits Arizona ratepayers, he said. Forese said that is far preferable to the United States exporting jobs to that country.
He also said he wants to encourage new technology that can improve service and bring down costs.
On the flip side, he said, “Technologies that invade privacy and take away personal responsibility are strongly discouraged.”