In our sound byte culture, where our knowledge of political leaders and policymakers tends to be limited to the “it” figure of the day, whatever personality is being the most polarizing or driving the most controversial news story of the moment, we often pay short shrift to the folks behind the scenes that make our states, cities, and towns tick. While they may not make headlines regularly, it’s the state regulators, legislators, mayors, county officials and local leaders that really make the greatest impact on our daily lives.
Robert S. Kenney, Chairman of the Missouri Public Service Commission, is one such leader positively impacting the communities he serves each day. Appointed by Governor Jay Nixon in July 2009, Chairman Kenney has helped regulate public utilities in the “Show Me” state since he was unanimously confirmed by the Missouri State Senate on January 13, 2010. For the past five years, Chairman Kenney has focused on elevating the level of advocacy, consumer outreach, and education taking place at the Commission, and he has overseen the expansion of gigabit-speed Internet to Kansas City and an increasing market for solar energy. Having worked for two different Attorneys General, as an Assistant Attorney General and as Chief of Staff, and as a litigator at a large law firm representing corporate clients in complex commercial/civil litigation matters, prior to beginning his tenure at the Missouri PSC, Chairman Kenney’s experiences have taught him how to examine issues from the perspective of both a consumer and business.
His leadership philosophy is simple: “seek input from diverse perspectives, analyze an issue, reach a conclusion, and then reach consensus to get a policy implemented. I have found that more can be accomplished when a critical mass of stakeholders feels that they have had the opportunity to be heard and that the ultimate policy reflects their input,” he told Politic365.
He shirks at the idea that regulators are just ‘rubber stamps’ for the entities and industries they regulate, and insists that every decision the PSC renders is made after probing scrutiny and thorough analysis of the issue under consideration. A champion of “cooperative federalism,” Chairman Kenney believes that the primary role of utility regulators is to “ensure that critical, life-saving, life enhancing utility services (electric, natural gas, water, sewer, and telecommunications) are available to all on a non-discriminatory basis, at just, fair, and reasonable rates.” He also thinks that PSCs play a particularly important role in making sure that people receive the benefit of universal access to critical services at fair prices, that they’re able to take advantage of new technologies that allow for more control over how utility services are consumed, that they have access to distributed energy resources, and can pay for utility services in an environment in which wages are stagnant to declining.
A man of the people, Chairman Kenney has been instrumental in making community outreach a top priority for the Missouri PSC. In addition to hosting local public hearings for virtually every case they hear, the PSC has a very transparent website that provides live streaming of all of the weekly commission meetings, hearings, and other proceedings. They also created a speakers bureau, which allows community organizations to request a speaker for their group to explain the regulatory process, and have a dedicated Public Information Coordinator whose sole function is to coordinate and conduct consumer outreach and education activities.
Social media also plays an important role in the Commission’s community engagement strategy. “New media,” he says, “Twitter, Facebook, Youtube – present real opportunities for agencies like ours (agencies dealing with significant public policy issues that people don’t normally pay attention to) to evangelize on issues that folks don’t typically talk about.” According to Chairman Kenney, not only does social media help expedite communications in non-traditional ways, but it helps increase transparency within the agency, a trait that’s valued by the people the Commissioners represent.
Connecting with the community is important to the Chairman, who is “most passionate about ensuring that the voiceless have a voice.”
“As public servants,” he says, “we have a duty to ensure that the citizens we serve feel that they have the ability to be heard. This, in my view, is critical to ensuring a healthy, functioning, democratic institution.”
Giving voice to the voiceless also requires that “public utility commissions reflect the diversity of the communities they serve,” Chairman Kenney says. “The credibility and integrity of our decisions depends on public acceptance of, and confidence in, those decisions. If a substantial or sizable portion of the public does not feel that it is being heard, the credibility of the decisions we render will suffer. Ultimately it is bad for democracy to have any governmental institutions that don’t reflect the diversity of the citizenry.”
It’s also bad for democracy, in Chairman Kenney’s view, if people don’t get more involved in the issues being addressed by the PSC each day. Charged with handling billion dollar cases on a routine basis, the PSC is increasingly called upon to make important decisions affecting people’s lives, and communities can remain “oblivious to their peril,” or they can become more engaged in the issues of the day.
Of critical importance, particularly to communities of color, is the interplay between environmental and energy regulations, especially in view of President Obama’s Clean Energy Plan. In this new era, Chairman Kenney says there’s an increasing tension between evolving environmental considerations, increased investment in utility infrastructure, which leads to increased rates, and the impact those investments have on low-income populations and communities of color. “Mitigating these issues is challenging,” he says, especially in the face of “stagnant to decreasing wages.” One of his greatest tasks as Chair of the Missouri PSC is to address this tension between providing consumers with affordable energy and being mindful of the significant capital expenditure utilities make on infrastructure – and the upward pressure that creates on rates. In his quest to “think creatively about promoting renewables in an affordable way” Chairman Kenney is a proponent of energy efficiency efforts and programs that support low to moderate income consumers.
“As a general proposition,” he says, “the public interest is something that promotes the general welfare, something that is beneficial (or at least not detrimental) to the common good.” As the leader of Missouri’s Public Service Commission, Chairman Kenney seeks to do good and do well in all that he does, and protecting and upholding the public interest is, at root, one of his key responsibilities as the state’s Regulator in Chief.