In his thirteenth year as a Maryland Public Service Commissioner, Harold D. Williams has an extensive background in business and public service that serves him well in his current role. Politic365 recently had the opportunity to glean some insight from Commissioner Williams on a variety of issues. Here’s what he had to say:
Politic365: What do you see as the most important role of utilities regulators?
Regulators of public service companies (utility and transportation) must be mindful of our role to balance the needs of companies with the needs of customers. In addition, we have to always remain mindful of the long-term effects of our decisions—for our state, our citizens, and the industries we regulate.
Politic365: What are the most critical issues facing communities of color and members of low-income or fixed income households?
Communities that are marginalized are often burdened with lack of access to information and resources. Although there are organizations that advocate for these groups, provide resources (financial and information), and offer solutions (free home inspections and energy-saving tools), many people lack the wherewithal to connect or tap into these opportunities. Obviously, those who have limited income often face the critical issue of just being able to pay their bills to keep the lights on.
Politic365: What is the process you employ to determine whether regulations are in the public interest?
In terms of regulations, the Commission must adhere to the regulations that are set forth in the Maryland Public Utilities Article. These regulations are created by the Maryland Legislature. Therefore, the prevailing laws and statutes are used to help guide the matters that are brought before the Commission. If there is a need to amend regulations, the Commission has the authority to convene a rulemaking process.
Matters brought before the Commission as formal, docketed cases are judged on their own merits. The record developed for proceedings often includes witness testimony, exhibits placed in evidence by legal counsel, and—for many matters—public comments (submitted in writing or through public comment hearings).
There are factors too numerous to list that affect how decisions are rendered, as the Commission decides matters related on very different issues: matters involving telecommunications; transportation; gas & electricity (rate cases, mergers, pipeline safety, etc.); and new generation to name a few.
Politic365: How can people become more involved in regulatory decision making?
There are several steps citizens can take toward becoming more involved. The first step is to become informed. Visit the public service commission (or public utility commission) website to learn more about the cases that are before the commission. The Maryland PSC has recently revamped its website, which includes more user-friendly navigation and a customer-oriented section.
Customers should get to know their utility advocate. In Maryland, we have the Office of People’s Counsel, which exists to represent the interests of residential rate payers in litigated and non-litigated matters before the Commission. These are skilled lawyers who know how to ensure that the needs and interests of consumers are heard.
Many cases require public hearings, so citizens should take advantage of that opportunity to make their feelings known (either in person at the hearing or by submitting comments in writing). Commissioners do take these comments into account, as they become part of the official record.
Contacting elected officials is another method of becoming involved. Regulatory commissions employ staff whose sole focus is to interact with government officials, who make known to the agency the concerns of their constituents.
Finally, people should feel free to invite representatives from their commissions to community meetings, homeowner association meetings, etc.
All of these measures will help close the knowledge gap and create more awareness.
Politic365: Since assuming office, what are the areas you feel most passionate about, and how would you like to be remembered?
The issue of supplier diversity is very important. In Maryland, we have executed Memoranda of Understanding with many of our utility companies, which have clear targets for the utilities contract with diverse suppliers. These MOUs are voluntary, but my goal is to have these guidelines added to COMAR.
Another high-priority interest is our regulations concerning contact voltage from a MD Commission rulemaking that established the Deanna Camille Green Rule. This rule was named for Deanna Camille Green, a 14-year-old who was tragically executed after touching an electrically charged fence at a playground. Maryland utility companies must now engage in regular testing for contact voltage and submit reports annually to the Commission.
Also, as the orders show, I have also been acutely concerned with how our decisions in each case will affect those who are most vulnerable: low- and limited-income groups, senior citizens, and those with disabilities.
It would be nice to be remembered as someone who gave a voice to issues that were silent or needed to be amplified. Over the course of my career, I have sometimes broken ranks with my colleagues by offering a dissenting opinion on Commission orders. The “lone dissenter” has been used often by others to characterize my position on certain Commission decisions. This generally occurs when I believe that the interests of the consumers have not been fully recognized by the majority opinion. A dissent does not imply that we as Commissioners do not work in a collegial environment—it’s a sign that we have robust deliberations that are then reflected in the ensuing orders.
I would also like to be remembered for my role in helping to draw national attention to the issue of supplier diversity among other state commissions. Our Maryland MOU has inspired other states to adopt similar agreements. Moreover, I helped the Utility Marketplace Access group take its place as a viable, full subcommittee in the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Starting back with my years at the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, I worked to create and evolve its minority business programs.
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?
In Maryland, members of the public often confuse our role with that of the Office of People’s Counsel, which is the agency responsible for advocating for residential customers in matters before the Commission. In fact, many people are not aware that the agency exists, which adds to the confusion.
The complexity of the cases we hear is not fully understood, nor do people fully grasp the number of staff required to review these matters aside from legal counsel, such as engineers, economists, and accountants who not only review the case applications, but are also called as witnesses in our hearings. For example, when a utility company submits an application for a rate increase, the process takes roughly seven months before a final order is issued.
Moreover, most people may not be aware that regulatory commissions are quasi-judicial—that we follow courtroom procedures and processes.
To improve customer education, commissions can develop relationships with the local media and be as responsive as possible to media requests for information, ensure that the commission’s complaint division is equipped to provide information to consumers in addition to taking complaints, engage in meaningful dialogues with local elected officials who are able to share commission information with their constituents, and meet with community groups to provide education on how their commission operates.
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?
The Commission does not regulate wireless, Internet, or cable services (we license wireless carriers to operate in the state, but they fall under FCC regulation). We do regulate landline phone services. Net metering is not a FERC-FCC matter; however, the Maryland Commission’s technical staff is actively involved in net metering and convenes a workgroup of stakeholders.
Politic365: How important is it that utilities commissioners reflect the diversity of this nation?
It is important that, whenever possible, state utility commissions should reflect a broad range of diversity. This should be manifested in experience (legal, utility industry, technical expertise, etc.), geography (our Commissioners reside in different areas of Maryland), age, ethnicity, and gender.
Politic365: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned about policymaking since taking office?
I have learned that commissions can be challenged by case management issues. The number and type of matters we see tend to be increasing steadily.
Technology has affected the way utilities do business in recent years. These changes affect consumers. Issues such as ride sharing, smart meters, and net metering are a few examples of how our regulatory landscape has evolved in recent years. Commissioners must stay abreast of understanding the function and role of technological advances, and still remain focused on our core mission: To ensure safe, reliable service at just and reasonable rates. No matter what new technology emerges, that traditional core statement will always prevail.
Politic365: How have your previous experiences prepared you for your current post and what would you say is your leadership philosophy?
My previous experiences have added insight and awareness to my current role at the Maryland Commission. Coming from a background in the utility industry provides specialized knowledge of how the gas and electric industry operates, which can be invaluable in reviewing matters before the Commission related to that sector.
I also have a background in law enforcement; therefore, I have understanding of and appreciation for laws and regulations and how they affect the community.
As a leader, I have learned the benefit of listening to many perspectives, and knowing that value comes from individuals across all segments of an organization, despite their hierarchical designation. You could say that I have an ‘open door’ policy. As commissioners, my colleagues and I have an enormous responsibility to the citizens we serve and the industries we regulate and I try to make it clear to our staff that they all play an important role in that regulatory process. When people feel connected to an organization’s mission and are valued, they tend to be more productive and satisfied at work.