Appointed by Governor Pat Quinn in February 2013 to a five year term on the Illinois Commerce Commission, Commissioner Sherina E. Maye made history as the youngest person ever appointed to the post in the state of Illinois. An attorney by trade, Commissioner Maye has a background in consumer finance litigation, and has developed a personal interest in critical infrastructure issues with a focus on cyber security. Active in her community, since being appointed to the ICC, Commissioner Maye is also involved with the National Association for Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) as a member of the Water Committee and the Subcommittee on Education and Research.
Politic365 had the opportunity recently to catch up with Commissioner Maye and pick her brain about a variety of issues associated with her tenure as an ICC Commissioner.
Politic365: What do you see as the most important role of utilities regulators?
The most important role, which is not an easy task, is to align private behavior with public interests and to maintain transparency while doing so. In addition, regulators also have to continually be educating themselves on the subject areas which they regulate so they can make the most informed decisions possible.
Politic365: What are the most critical issues facing communities of color and members of low-income or fixed income households?
As it pertains to communities of color, a disproportionate number of which are also members of low-income or fixed income households, the most critical issue is underfunding for low-income assistance programs and other subsidies. Unfortunately, the number of low-income consumers surpasses the amount of funding for such programs and regulators and utilities alike must continue to explore innovative solutions.
Strides have been made, including, for example, the Percentage of Income Payment Plan, or PIPP, which helps fixed-income households manage their utility bills and prevent expensive and dangerous disconnection and reconnection cycles. Illinois households, on average, spend between 4 and 6 percent of their income on utilities. PIPP allows these households to put 6 percent of their gross income towards utility bills. We still need to do more, however, and collaboration is key.
Politic365: Would you welcome greater interplay with the FCC and FERC on hot-button issues like wireless and Internet access taxes, open Internet enforcement, and net metering? Why or why not?
When it comes to issues of wireless service, Internet access taxes and open Internet enforcement, the FCC truly is the expert and unless necessary, the Illinois Commission does not typically deal with such issues. I know that just this week, FCC Chairman Wheeler announced publicly a proposal to treat the internet more like a public utility, so it will be interesting to see how that works going forward and what role, if any, states may play. As it pertains to net metering, states have been in a position to lead the charge, but there’s always room for collaboration and coordination, in my opinion.
Politic365: What is the process you employ to determine whether regulations are in the public interest?
Public determinations involve a totality of the circumstances consideration employed on a case by case basis. As a Commissioner, making this determination ultimately requires me to consider the evidence before me from the record while at the same time, interpreting the applicable statute. I must leave bias out of my determination and to the best of my ability, make a sound judgment based on the record, prior commission precedent, and the overall interest of ratepayers. In my opinion, this is why it’s so important for various stakeholders to play a role in the litigation process because without the varying evidence and testimony, it would be very difficult for a Commissioner to hear the different sides of an issue and ultimately make a fair decision.
Politic365: How can people become more involved in regulatory decision making?
By law, any person can file a public comment on a matter before the Commission. Comments can be filed online or by phone and are reported to the Commissioners. Any person can also, by law, request to address the Commission at an open meeting. We have a great Consumer Services Division who are there to provide information and assistance to consumers. Consumers can also contact consumer advocates such as the Attorney General’s Office or the Citizens Utility Board.
Politic365: Since assuming office, what are the areas you feel most passionate about, and how would you like to be remembered?
Since assuming office, I’ve been very passionate about increasing opportunities for women in the Energy industry. As a small representation of a billion dollar industry, women are slowly but surely moving towards the executive level of all sections of the energy space. In September 2014, I hosted the first Women’s Energy Summit in the state of Illinois that brought about 170 regulators, industry leaders, government officials and community representatives together to discuss pressing water and energy issues as well as diversity, inclusion and the advancement of women in energy.
While, I may not be able to make this change alone, I want to be remembered as someone who took great strides and used this great platform as a tool in assisting in the elevation of women in energy.
Politic365: What are the top misconceptions that you think people have about regulators and the regulatory process in this country, and how do we improve consumer education and awareness?
I think the most common misconception is that regulators exist to guarantee consumers low utility rates. However, regulation is needed to allow utilities the opportunity to get a return on their investment while also protecting consumers. In order to improve customer education and awareness, I think collaboration amongst all the players in the regulated world is key. The message from utilities, regulators, consumer advocates and other key parties should be the same: to ensure safe, reliable, affordable utility service for all consumers.
Politic365: How important is it that utilities commissioners reflect the diversity of this nation?
Very important. The utility industry is unique in that its customer base is extremely wide and far reaching. Utilities are an essential service in society, and often times, utility consumers are customers by virtue of their residence alone and choice is not part of the equation (in some deregulated states, however, including Illinois, consumers are able to select their energy supplier, for example.). That said, it makes sense for the commission to best represent the population it serves. Diversity and inclusion has been evidenced to improve decision making and overall, allows regulators to better identify the issues and concerns of its constituents. Furthermore, in a time where regulators have taken a proactive stance as it relates to business and workforce diversity within the privately owned utilities they regulate, it’s important for Commissions to demonstrate leadership by serving as a positive example. We must “practice what we preach” so that our investor-owned utilities will show an equal commitment to inclusion and diversity. Of course, state government has its red tape, so this is all easier said than done, but it’s definitely important and I’m committed to finding ways to improve this issue.
Politic365: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned about policymaking since taking office?
I’ve learned that policymaking is not easy and that as much as I strive for balance, it is not always evident in the outcome. For example, rate increase proposals submitted to the Commission by our regulated utilities reflect changes in market conditions as well as updated regulatory and energy policies. As a Commissioner, I am required to harmonize our regulatory objectives – balancing public and private interests – with the advancement of public policy, and the setting of rates plays a crucial role in achieving this harmonization.
The ICC’s mission is to pursue an appropriate balance between the interest of consumers and service providers to ensure the provision of adequate, efficient, reliable, safe and least-cost public utility services. Making tradeoffs among ratemaking objectives that best serve the public interest poses a difficult but inevitable task for us but that is ultimately what policymaking is all about.
Politic365: How have your previous experiences prepared you for your current post and what would you say is your leadership philosophy?
As a Commissioner at the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), I am responsible for leading the ICC in its mission to set rates and charges for public utilities while also leading the organization in its regulation of transportation issues such as railroad safety, towing, trucking and the moving of household goods.
Although I’ve had a vast array of experiences between my professional career and my civic and volunteer experiences, my best experience to prepare me for my current role is hard work which I learned from a very young age. That was something that was instilled in me from my childhood. In 2013, I was appointed to a role that I had no background in but hard work has once again carried me through what could have been a very tumultuous time. I took the time to read, to meet with experts, and to literally teach myself how to do what I am now doing and it has paid off tremendously.
My leadership philosophy without a doubt is “to whom much is given, much is required.” I am truly blessed in aspects of my life but I continue to pay that forward and to give everything that I do 110%.