Commissioner Bob Burns

Bob Burns

Howard Fischer / Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX — Calling the process illegal, a utility regulator is asking the Arizona Supreme Court to void last week’s vote giving the state’s largest electric utility permission to immediately charge its customers an extra $7 a month.

Bob Burns, on the losing end of the 4-1 vote for the rate increase, claims the process followed by his colleagues on the Arizona Corporation Commission did not comply with statutory and constitutional requirements for a full airing of all relevant issues.

Specifically, Burns contends he was denied the opportunity to determine any influence campaign contributions by the electric utility, Arizona Public Service, had on other commissioners and whether it tainted the vote.

He said the high court must immediately void the rate increase as a violation of his rights and of constitutional duties of the other commissioners.

Burns conceded there is no precedent for the legal relief he is seeking. But he said the current political situation forces creation of one.

“There hasn’t been interference or participation or whatever the proper term is of utilities in elections at the rate that APS that decided to get into them up to this point,” he said.

That includes the company’s admission it spent $4.2 million last year to elect a commission of its liking and questions about how much of $3.2 million filtered through “dark money” organizations that refuse to disclose their donors and spent in the 2014 campaign came from the utility.

The company has agreed to voluntarily disclose future spending — but not until months after the election is over.

There was no immediate response from commission Chairman Tom Forese. But APS spokesman Jim McDonald said the company will oppose what Burns is trying to get the court to do.

Hanging in the balance is whether APS gets to keep the additional $7 million a month that it started collecting from customers this past Saturday.

That rate hike followed the 4-1 vote by the commission approving an agreement involving APS, the commission’s own staff, the Residential Utility Consumer Office and most of the groups and individuals who had interceded in the case. That list includes companies that sell or lease solar panels to homeowners and businesses to generate their own electricity after the final deal blunted the financial impact on those customers.

McDonald said the rate review, the company’s first in five years, is “a win for customers and will lead to many benefits.”

But Burns said his lawsuit, and any precedent set, is critical to providing voters and ratepayers information on how much utilities are spending to elect the people who regulate them.

“As long as we have one person on the commission that believes it is necessary, and if the court agrees that one person has the authority to open up the books, we have a reporting system,” Burns said.

APS has more than 1 million residential customers. It serves primarily the Phoenix area and central Arizona but also portions of Southern Arizona including Ajo, Bisbee and Douglas.