A state lawmaker sponsoring a bill calling for a board to oversee the public advocate’s office says the move would deliver more balanced guidance and was not the result of the utility headed by his son having conflicts with the advocate’s office.
Republican Rep. Roger Sherman said he is sponsoring the bill because he’s not always “sure” of decisions made by Public Advocate Timothy Schneider, who supports ratepayers before state, regional and federal regulators. Sherman’s son is the general manager of a municipal water and electric utility that has butted heads with the advocate’s office.
Schneider was appointed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and confirmed by the Maine Legislature in May 2013 for a four-year term that expires in May.
LePage has clashed with Schneider on solar policy and has called his appointment “one of the worst, worst decisions ever in my life.”
Schneider’s predecessor Richard Davies – who was appointed in 2007 – served at the pleasure of the governor and was considered part of the administration. But legislators in 2009 changed the law to make the public advocate form policy positions independent of the governor.
Sherman says his bill would strengthen the independence of the public advocate by creating a board that would appoint the next advocate and provide “policy guidance.” Under his proposal, the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker would each appoint one of the board’s members. The public advocate would serve a six-year term, subject to legislative confirmation.
The next public advocate’s term would begin Feb. 1, 2018.
“We can get someone in there with a little bit of a different view of things,” Sherman said.
Sherman, who questioned the viability of wind power and noted that LePage has called for more hydropower and lowered electricity costs, said the next advocate should listen to such calls.
“I think he or she really should listen to this: We need power, cheap as we can have it,” Sherman said.
Sherman’s son, Greg, is general manager of Houlton Water Company, a municipal water and electric utility that recently won permission from the LePage-appointed Public Utilities Commission to leave Emera Maine and connect to the Canadian power grid.
The public advocate opposed the move, questioning the projections of savings and what would happen during a power outage.
The energy, utilities and technology committee was scheduled to hold a public hearing Tuesday.
Schneider, a former lawyer representing electricity and natural gas companies, said his office would not testify against the bill, though he said he’d describe his office’s decision-making process if asked. He said being independent allows you to “do what you think is right and not worry whether a legislator is going to come after you.”
Greg Sherman shared a copy of his prepared testimony, in which he wrote that his father’s bill would “take some politics out of the appointment.”
The younger Sherman said that over the past 15 years, the public advocate has three different times reversed its support of policies that the utility backed.
In 2014, Schneider’s office withdrew its opposition to a multimillion-dollar wind venture that the utility opposed.
“We do not know if the governor interfered with the policy change but having the (public advocate) report to a three-person board would allow for different opinions and balanced guidance,” Greg Sherman said.
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