Commissioner Called Before Senate Panel To Explain Changes To Report
The chairman of Vermont’s Senate Finance Committee is calling Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia before the Senate committee after documents revealed that Recchia removed key criticisms and reform recommendations from the department’s self-assessment report earlier this year.
“I will be inviting Commissioner Recchia to speak to committee tomorrow,” said Chittenden Sen. Tim Ashe in an email to VPR. “Needless to say, having written the language asking for this report, this is not pretty looking.”
The language Ashe refers to is in Act 56, which last year ordered Recchia’s department to study its public advocate’s effectiveness at representing the public interest. The resulting report to the Legislature was supposed to contain “any recommendations on how to improve the structure and effectiveness of the Division for Public Advocacy within the Department of Public Service.”
The final report contained no recommendations, concluding that “we do not believe that there is an inherently better model for Vermont ratepayers.”
But documents released to VPR under Vermont’s public records law show that early drafts of the report, written by Recchia’s staff, contained specific recommendations for how Vermont’s system could be improved, including a recommendation that the Legislature clarify the public advocate’s mission.
The documents show Recchia pushed back the release date for the first public draft of the report, then – on the next business day - took over the editing process and subsequently stripped out key recommendations and criticisms, including completely deleting from the public record an expert critic’s letter to the department.
Recchia says the department’s final report does reflect the recommendations mentioned in earlier reports. He also said his testimony to Ashe’s committee in February reflected the early drafts’ assertion that the public would be better served if the Legislature took action to clarify the public advocate’s mission.
But that isn’t how Recchia put it at the earlier hearing.
“I understand the tension between the concept of ratepayer advocacy and the difference with public advocacy,” Recchia said before the Senate Finance committee last month. The early drafts of the Act 56 report outlined ways to resolve that tension.
Recchia continued: “And what I’d suggest to you is [that] what’s come out of this is: If that’s the model that people feel like they want – that they want true, pure ratepayer advocacy – then that’s a different model than what we have. I’m happy to have that debate and discuss that with you about the pros and cons of those different models, but it became clear to me through this process that I know my team is doing a very, very good job at implementing the statutes and the responsibilities that you have laid out.”
Then Recchia told the Senate committee that making a change would be a mistake.
"You can have different models and you can certainly choose to go those directions. And again, at a different time we can have a discussion in detail about the pros and cons of that and the benefits of it. I would offer to you though today that I feel like you will lose more than you will gain by doing that. And I’ll leave that at that point." - Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia
“Those [statutes and responsibilities that you have laid out] are not the responsibilities that some think we have or should have, and that, I think, is the nut of the problem that we need to work on and address. And you can have different models and you can certainly choose to go those directions. And again, at a different time we can have a discussion in detail about the pros and cons of that and the benefits of it," he said. "And I’ll leave that at that point.”
But in the conclusion of an early draft, the report says: “[w]e recommend that the Legislature consider amending Title 30 by adding language that clarifies the duty of the public advocacy division of the Department of Public Service.”