Growing Grassroots Campaign Takes Aim At Pepco, State Regulators
It was day five without power and there was a utility pole, split in half and tangled in wires, on Abbe Milstein's North Bethesda street. In the wake of the June 29, 2012 derecho, Milstein spent much of her time jockeying for outlets at a Barnes & Noble and checking for power updates on the listserv of a neighborhood swim club. "I thought, 'You know, something is not right here. It just doesn't feel right,'" she said. "People were in panic mode." It sparked a Google search, a call to Councilmember Roger Berliner's office, a meeting with neighbors, a crash course in utility law and a July 19 briefing at the County Council in which a number of elected officials grilled Pepco leaders. Also there were dozens of upset residents. They weren't allowed to speak that day, but more than 70 testified a few weeks later when the state's Public Service Commission held a Rockville public hearing on a Pepco request for a rate increase. Many were urged to testify against the increase through Milstein's email list, Powerupmontco, which the 45-year-old stay-at-home mom uses to sound off on Pepco and the state's regulation process for utility companies. "As I got further and further and deeper and deeper into it, I realized that not only was it a state issue and was it a problem, but a lot of people who were voting on things and implementing policy didn't really understand what they were doing," Milstein said. "That's when it really came home for me." On Nov. 6, more than a year after she started Powerupmontco, the group will join the AARP to host an educational forum for candidates in next year's primaries. This comes after a lobbying trip to Annapolis during the 2013 session and an intervening role in the latest Pepco rate case. Though not a nonprofit or official lobbying group, the presence of Milstein and Powerupmontco is growing. "She's serious about this," said Berliner, who has taken the lead in electric reliability issues on the Council. "She's a sophisticated person and she is smart and she works hard. That's what you need when you are doing this kind of work, as well as a long-term outlook. If you're looking for short-term gratification, it doesn't come. This is a long, tough slog." Milstein worked in Annapolis as an intern for one session during college. She got a law degree, worked at a law firm, became an aid for Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, went to a Democratic think tank and helped on a campaign for Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel in her home district outside Philadelphia. She moved to the Luxmanor neighborhood in 2000 and became a stay-at-home mom. Big storms rolled through, shutting power off for long periods of time. She claims sunny day outages weren't uncommon. But it was the 2012 derecho that sparked action. She read a 2011 report from the Montgomery County Pepco Work Group, which was charged with investigating frequent Pepco outages. The group, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, faulted Pepco for its performance and called on the state's Public Service Commission to "impose remedies sufficient to align Pepco's financial interests with the interests of the community." Later that year, the PSC fined Pepco $1 million for failing to maintain power lines that resulted in prolonged outages. The PSC, a quasi-judicial body which has five members appointed by the governor, determines the outcome of rate increase requests from utilities that operate in Maryland. There is a state Office of People's Counsel, which represents consumer interests before the PSC. But Berliner, who worked as a utility lawyer in California before coming to Montgomery County, said Maryland doesn't have the type of organized and well-resourced ratepayer advocacy that exists there. "Public utility law is one third public policy, one third law and one third politics," Berliner said. "It is very complex. It is resource-intensive, so that's a limiting factor for a grassroots organization. I think Powerupmontco, given those limitations, has provided a very valuable service." Milstein sends an email about every four to six weeks, sometimes more frequently if a rate case is in the news. Lately, she has taken aim at the PSC itself. She argues it tilts too heavily to the side of utility companies. She also questioned why Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) didn’t appoint a fifth PSC commissioner during the 2013 General Assembly. The commission was down to four members when it ruled on Pepco’s last rate increase in July. One commissioner indicated he did not want to vote for a controversial “tracker” payment for Pepco, but felt obligated to in order to avoid a 2-2 stalemate on the commission. "The Public Service Commission is a neutral, independent body appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate," Pepco spokeswoman Myra Oppel wrote in an email response. "We litigate our rate cases before the commission, other parties advocate their positions and then the commission reaches a decision." Pepco wasn't happy with the PSC's July ruling either. The PSC approved almost half ($27.9 million of a requested $60.8 million) of the request and the tracker, $24 million up front for reliability improvements Montgomery County says the company should be required to provide. Both Pepco and Montgomery County appealed the decision. In September, Milstein and Catherine Eshmont, organizer of Reliability4HowardCounty, sent a letter to state senators arguing against the appointment of New Jersey utility executive Anne E. Hoskins to the PSC. "Voters might question why the Governor of the state of Maryland would appoint to the Public Service Commissioner a former utility executive whose company has one of the worst track records in the nation for nuclear contamination of the State of New Jersey,” the letter reads. “Grid Resiliency might be the least of our worries once Anne is a Commissioner on the Maryland Public Service Commission.” Since the letter, Milstein and Hoskins met. Milstein characterized the conversation as productive. Hoskins said the PSC would look into improving the system for registering a complaint against a utility. "A lot of things about the commission haven't changed since 1979. That' a long time. You have a new level of service that you want to maintain to a community," Milstein said. "The fact that we had a period where the Public Service Commission didn't even know that Pepco was in the bottom quartile of reliability in the nation, for years, just shows how difficult it is for even the commission to understand what the problems are." It appears Milstein is ruffling feathers on a few fronts. A typo led to Milstein being left off the announcement email for an Aug. 7 conference call with Pepco, required by the PSC to update all parties involved in the rate case on the company's progress. Milstein found out about the call from another party to the case and questioned Pepco Regulatory Affairs Manager Patti Johnson as to why she was left off the list. Johnson muttered an obscenity on the conference call, apparently aimed at Milstein, while trying to find why Milstein was left off the email. Johnson later apologized to Milstein via email for sounding irritated. "We have the utmost respect for the parties in our proceedings," Oppel wrote when asked about the incident. "It is unfortunate if that has not been conveyed. We look forward to working productively with all parties going forward." Oppel said Pepco would welcome the chance to participate in the Nov. 6 forum to further explain the reliability fixes the company's rates fund. Milstein is hoping for a number of District 16 delegate candidates and statewide representatives at the forum, which will take place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Bethesda North Marriott (5701 Marinelli Rd.). It's a free event for candidates, Powerupmontco subscribers (of which there are about 350) and AARP members. RSVPs are required. The idea of forming a nonprofit advocacy group has been kicked around by core members of the group, but Milstein said the required investment in time and money isn't yet there. Now, Powerupmontco is hoping to reach elected officials through education about the public utility process. For Milstein and many of her neighbors, all they must do is point to July 2012 and the problems that prolonged power outage created. "If you have something, you don't necessarily realize how important it is on a regular basis," she said. "It's when you don't have something that you realize how essential it is to your life."