The commission makes decisions that impact millions of utility ratepayers and its meetings are subject to Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.
“I’m not sure what motivated this change because it is a change from how they’ve historically run the meetings,” said Gerry Weber, a civil rights attorney, law professor and board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Weber added: “If it’s not being enforced, that’s obviously good — that calls for an amendment to the public comment guidelines,” so that they reflect what the Open Meetings Act requires.
The act states that the “public at all times shall be afforded access to meetings declared open to the public.” Weber said state courts have been clear that governing bodies can’t allow some members of the public to attend while excluding others, which he said is what the PSC is doing by saying that anyone not a party to the case being heard will be asked to leave the meeting.
The PSC implemented the new set of public comment rules for in-person meetings with the stated aim of preserving “strict order,” according to the guidelines that went into effect in August. They were released shortly before highly anticipated Georgia Power hearings in September when the company argued for higher returns for investors and rate hikes for customers that would kick in over the next three years and could lead to the average household paying nearly $200 more each year for electricity. Those hearings are scheduled to resume Nov. 8.
Commission Chair Tricia Pridemore said the rules are legal and have been vetted by the commission’s lawyer.
“The Georgia Public Service Commission has never been more open to the public in its history,” she said.
The PSC’s five seats are voted on statewide, but candidates are required to live in one of five districts. Two commission seats were supposed to be on the ballot this November, but that election was cancelled after a court ruled that the candidate eligibility requirements discriminated against Black voters.
The Georgia General Assembly will consider legislation in early 2023 to create new PSC maps before a new special election date can be set.
Pridemore said the timing of the new meeting rules had to do with the commission “trying to open back up after the pandemic.” She said it factored in space limitations inside the commission’s longtime meeting room at a state office building across from the Gold Dome downtown.
Over the years, the number of additional parties — called intervenors — formally involved in cases has increased, Pridemore said. Intervenors are often environmental groups, consumer advocates and others.
“The room size has not grown,” she said. “All of those people have a legal responsibility to be present.”
She added that the general public can watch meetings online or on a screen in the lobby of the state office building where the meetings are held.
The other four commissioners said they approved the new rules over space concerns based on the recommendation of Pridemore and staff. They each said, despite the way the rule is written, it was never meant to bar the public from their meetings.
“There’s nobody that’s gonna be escorted out of the commission, I can assure you of that,” said Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald. “That’s what I say. I’m just one of five.”
Two commissioners said the commission may need to review and rewrite the rule to clear up any misunderstanding.
Commissioner Jason Shaw said he was under the impression the rule would only be enforced if space became an issue.
“Maybe we do need to look at it,” Shaw said of the rule. “That’s what was recommended by our staff; it didn’t come from me.”
Commissioner Fitz Johnson also said maybe the commission should change the rule.
“My understanding is we would enforce it if we had a conflict and we didn’t have the space,” he said.
Commissioner Tim Echols said the commission is very transparent.
“This is not some smoke-filled back room where we’re making deals,” Echols said. “All of our conversation is out there in public for people to hear.”
Greg Lisby, a professor emeritus of communication law at Georgia State, said the rule requiring commenters leave appeared to violate state law governing public bodies.
“I can see where you can attend an open meeting or a public meeting and not be allowed to speak, because the statute didn’t require that, but the statute does actually require that you be there, that the meeting be open,” Lisby said.
He also expressed concern about several other provisions in the new rules, which he said were vague or unfair, such as requiring public commenters who are not heard during the first hour of the meeting to come back at the next hearing to give their comment.
Taken together, Lisby said the PSC’s list of rules is “not encouraging public input, certainly not encouraging in-person public input.”
Tensions over the commission’s public comment policies have been brewing since the pandemic, when proceedings went online and public comment was temporarily suspended during meetings. People were asked to submit their comments in writing, over the phone or at the front desk.
Wan Smith, the organizing director for Georgia Conservation Voters, said the PSC’s preferential treatment toward utility companies and other intervening parties, compared to members of the public, is wrong.
Ratepayers, who would pay the brunt of the estimated $2.9 billion Georgia Power rate increase, “are not afforded the same rights and privileges as other people,” she said. “To cherry pick who can come in the room is unacceptable.”
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Georgia Power rate case hearing details.
When: Nov. 8, 9 and 10 at 9:30 a.m.
Where: Georgia Public Service Commission hearing room 110, 244 Washington St. SW, Atlanta, GA 30334. The hearings will also be streamed on the PSC’s YouTube channel.
Public comments: The first hour of each hearing day will be reserved for public input, but speakers will be limited to three minutes in front of the commissioners and could be asked to leave after. Those who aren’t able to speak during that one hour will have to return to a subsequent hearing. The commission will also accept public comments through an online portal and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.