Utilities commission needs utilities experts, not politicos
Natural gas explosions, pipeline ruptures and the disastrous Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, have underscored staffing problems at the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), as well as urgent needs for reform. The commission that regulates essential infrastructure is operating without leadership, despite growing scrutiny of the state’s oversight of public utilities.
The PUC regulates all businesses and industries that provide public services in the commonwealth — including setting rates for electric, gas, water, wastewater utilities. Despite those enormous responsibilities, the agency has not had an executive director since the beginning of the year, Ford Turner of the Post-Gazette reported. Equally risky, given the importance of litigation to the PUC’s mission, the chief counsel’s office also is empty.
Only one of the five PUC board members has significant experience in public utilities: Ralph V. Yanora of Luzerne County, a master plumber and founder of a company that works with municipal water systems. Three other commissioners, including two appointed by former Gov. Tom Wolf in September 2022, are products of Harrisburg’s political-legislative ecosystem, with experience as aides and lobbyists, but not directly in public utilities.
Given the enormous public responsibility of the five-person PUC board, Gov. Josh Shapiro should appoint commissioners with extensive experience in the sectors the agency regulates — not favored legislative staffers and political operatives, as has too often been the case.
To use these appointments, which pay more than $160,000 a year, as rewards for loyal political service, is irresponsible. The term of the commission’s long-time chairperson, Gladys Brown Dutrieuille, expired on April 1, and Mr. Shapiro has yet to announce her reappointment or replacement. This is an opportunity to pick someone with professional experience in utilities — not just in politics — to head the PUC and give the agency the stability it currently lacks.
The PUC’s website shows further high-level vacancies: among them, the Director of Regulatory Affairs, the Executive Deputy Chief Counsel for Transportation, and the Supervisor for management audits in the Pittsburgh region.
Routine staff turnover accounts for some of this, but a spokesman acknowledged staffing challenges and told the Post-Gazette its employees’ skills are highly attractive to private companies. Still, long-time vacancies, without public notice, in such an essential agency should have demanded the attention of the five commissioners governing the commission.
By holding up appointments during Mr. Wolf’s term, Republicans cynically used the PUC board as a bargaining chip, resulting in multiple years-long vacancies. Now the commission is full, and it’s Mr. Shapiro’s job to continue to shape it. He must do better than his predecessor.
— From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (AP).