The two East Valley members of the Arizona Corporation Commission are starting to push for reforms on the panel in the wake of a federal bribery indictment of a former member.
Tom Forese, a former state legislator from Gilbert who now heads the commission, said the indictment may make the case for appointing utility regulators instead of electing them.
And former Chandler Mayor Boyd Dunn, who was elected to the commission last year, said he agrees there needs to be a conversation on how future regulators are chosen
“We are in the minority,” he said. “There are only 12 states that deal with elected commissioners. The rest are appointed.”
Forese noted that former Mesa legislator and ex-commission member Gary Pierce is charged with accepting money through his wife from a utility executive in exchange for supporting two separate financial matters to benefit that family-owned company. Pierce, through an attorney, has said the indictment represents selected use of facts by the government.
Forese said the fact that prosecutors believe they have a case says something.
“I even think that this could be the strongest argument for having an appointed commission,” Forese said.
Any such change would require voter approval. And the earliest the Arizona Constitution could be amended is 2018.
Forese, however, said he's not just going to wait around.
“These allegations that are before us demand immediate action,” he said. “And that's where our focus should be right now.”
Most immediately, Forese wants fellow Commissioner Andy Tobin to begin “an audit and review” of the policies that, according to the indictment, were enacted because Pierce had been given money to support them.
One of those is a 2011 vote by the commission, on a 3-1 margin with one abstention, to include another $18.2 million into the rate base for Johnson Utilities, reversing an earlier commission decision. More money in the rate base translates to the ability of a utility to increase what it charges customers to cover the costs.
The issue with broader implications – and one that the current commission might re-examine – is the 2012 proposal by Pierce to allow firms like Johnson Utilities to charge customers for the income tax payments owned by the company's owners. That proposal was approved a year later on a 4-1 vote.
Forese, in a letter to fellow commissioners obtained by Capitol Media Services, said a review is necessary.
“The current commission must determine if those decisions were made in the public interest,” he wrote. At the very least, Forese said there needs to be a code of ethics for commissioners.
He pointed out that staffers are governed by certain policies. For example, Forese said, staffers can’t have meals with utility officials.
“This same restriction should be considered for application to commissioners as well,” he said. And Forese said that those who lobby the commission should be required to register.
Potentially the most far-reaching, Forese said other government bodies, including the Legislature, have the ability to censure or remove members for certain conduct.
“I ask that all such possibilities be explored,” he wrote.
Dunn said having elected commissioners means candidates have to raise money – often from the very people who have an interest in the panel’s decisions.
But he said there’s also a downside to having appointed commissioners.
“There seems to be less of an opportunity for citizens to participate,” Dunn explained. “Whenever you have elective positions, you make a point of going out and listening to the voters and the ratepayers, who are also voters.”
The idea of an appointed commission does not sit well with Bob Burns, a former legislator first elected to the panel in 2012 and re-elected last year.
“The idea is how do you prevent corruption,” he said. Burns said the way you don't do that is “put the appointment in the hands of one person: the governor.”