As an attorney, active church-goer, and committed member of her sorority, Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Gladys Brown embodies the values of service and stewardship in her role of regulating the state’s utility companies. She views “protection of consumers and reliability of service for all end-users” as the most important role of utility regulators, and thinks that a collaborative spirit is important to policymaking, so much so that she believes “a leader knows when to lead and when to follow.”
In a recent interview with Politic365, Commissioner Brown said, “the ability to balance the needs of the utilities that we regulate and the needs of the consumers that we protect is a priority and requires a thorough understanding of those needs. Diversity is often a necessary tool in balancing this, because in many cases, there is room to better understand those needs.
Gladys M. Brown was sworn in as a Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner on Oct. 2, 2013, one day after receiving unanimous approval from the Pennsylvania Senate. Commissioner Brown was nominated for the position by Governor Tom Corbett on June 13, 2013. Her term expires April 1, 2018.
During her confirmation hearing, Commissioner Brown pledged to use the same fair and balanced approached in dealing with PUC issues that she used in her more than 22 years as an aide in the Pennsylvania Senate. She highlighted that one of her goals on the Commission is to increase efforts to educate consumers.
Since 1991, Commissioner Brown served as counsel to the Senate Democratic Leader, where she worked on many of the major utility issues that have been considered by the General Assembly in the last two decades. As a former Legislative Counsel, she learned to “look first to the statutory authority provided to determine if regulations or policies implemented are in the public interest, as well as look at the overall impact of the policy on the end-use consumer to make sure that they are not overburdened with any regulatory changes of policy.” It’s that same sensibility that she’s brought to her current role as a regulated utilities commissioner. Prior to joining the Senate, Commissioner Brown served as an assistant counsel for the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs in the Pennsylvania Department of State and as a clerk for the Honorable Paul A. Simmons, Judge for the U.S. District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania.
Being a public utilities commissioner is a balancing act, and Commissioner Brown believes that “because utility issues tend to be complex, decision making is seldom just black and white; you have to pay attention to all viewpoints presented by parties.” That dynamic, the need to weigh and assess all sides may, ironically, lead to one of the greatest misconceptions that people tend to have about utilities regulators, “that they always side with the utilities that they regulate and never take steps to deny requested rate increases.”
Even still, greater “consumer education and outreach to not only the consumers, but also members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly who serve as their elected officials,” could also go a long way toward increasing consumer awareness and engagement in the regulatory process. Commissioner Brown believes that “regulators must focus on providing consumer education and timely information so that any future utility program changes that are made, which affect consumers, are not made in a vacuum.”
Beyond basic issues of engagement, like many of her colleagues, Commissioner Brown believes that people should be more aware of the impact that their utilities services have on their personal bottom line. “For low-income or fixed-income households, a critical issue facing this population is the ability to pay for consumption of utilities that they so desperately need. The lower your income is, the higher your energy burden is (a higher percentage of your income used to meet utility bills).”
For her efforts and tireless service, Commissioner Brown “would like to be remembered as a Commissioner that wants to educate the consumer, whether it is individual or business, on the regulatory process so that they can position themselves to be heard and to give them a better understanding of our role as regulators. Commissions provide the ability for all persons to participle in their regulatory process through public input hearings or the ability to file comments, even pro se, to the Commission.”