MONTPELIER >> A top Shumlin administration official defended a report he gave to the Legislature as the product of a "robust discussion" — not a unilateral decision to rewrite a final report, as characterized by a VPR story.
Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Department Public Service, was asked to appear before the Senate Finance Committee Thursday to explain why proposals to improve the department's responsiveness to ratepayer complaints were not included in the final draft of the report. The department is charged with representing the public interest in the regulation of utilities and telecommunications companies.
"Act 56 is my report to you, and I take full responsibility for the final product," Recchia said. "I make no apologies for the process used, the resulting content or the recommendations ultimately presented from me to you in this final report, as I believe they faithfully and self-critically fulfill your request of me."
Recchia said he made no attempt to "willfully manipulate" the process of drafting the report.
The Act 56 report, a "self-assessment" of the Public Advocacy Division, omitted a number of recommendations suggested by staff, according to a story by Taylor Dobbs of VPR. Criticism from a lawyer representing activists who oppose the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline project was also scrubbed from the self-assessment.
A draft report from Jan. 7 that was later substantially rewritten cited a repeated criticism of the department: That DPS is too often influenced by the political aims of the governor's office.
"One of the most common criticisms we received from members of the public was that the Department's public advocacy division should be insulated from the influence of political or governmental hierarchies," the drafters of the report wrote.
Those criticisms didn't make it into the final version submitted to lawmakers on Jan. 11.
AARP, citizens groups and attorneys for pipeline opponents have said for years that the department is too politicized and officials are not doing enough to protect the public interest.
The Shumlin administration has aggressively pursued renewable energy policies and has openly supported the Vermont Gas pipeline. Activists say the governor's policy interests have taken precedence over the fundamental role of the department — ratepayer advocacy.
Recommendations from staffers that were omitted include: a suggestion that the department make the Public Advocacy Division a separate and independent entity that serves ratepayers; that the division chief be fired only for cause; and that the state provide funding for citizens to represent themselves before the Public Service Board.
In an email, the head of the public advocacy division Geoff Commons told Wayne Jortner, the author of the report, and other staffers that Recchia "is essentially taking it over, which is fine with me."
Recchia told senators that the VPR story, which was based on internal memos, took comments made between staffers "out of context."
"You can see from the records that there was a robust discussion, it was not heavy handed in terms of the outcome," Recchia said. "This report was created through an open collaborative effort that included senior staff."
The commissioner accused VPR of approaching the story "with a particular bias" and a "preconceived desire to paint a particular scenario."
"There was lots of other evidence that could be used to paint a completely different picture, which is the one I tried to paint today," he said.
Recchia said after much deliberation, he and his staff decided to eliminate direct quotes and comments from the report and to instead focus on broad themes based on feedback from members of the public.
Some of those themes, he said, included criticism that Gov. Peter Shumlin has too much influence over the department and that the department is too policy oriented and is not adequately advocating for ratepayers.
"I do feel we faithfully included people's comments and thoughts in the report," Recchia said.
Comments for the report made by Jim Dumont, an attorney for AARP, were in the original January draft of the report, and then were eliminated in the final version. Dumont's memo was later posted on the DPS website.
In a memo to the department, Dumont said the division has a structural problem that is inherently political. The division answers to the commissioner, who in turn answers to the governor, Dumont said. The division, he believes, should answer to the ratepayers.
"I believe it is high time for the legislature to re-examine whether ratepayer advocacy should be directed by a person who is appointed by the Governor, serves at the pleasure of the Governor, and, in my experience over the past 26 years, in some major cases has been ordered or strongly urged to make decisions based on the wishes of the Governor without regard to the expertise and opinions of the professional staff and lawyers within the Department," Dumont wrote.
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said he took the commissioner "at his word" and he wants to move on and address the recommendations made by staffers at DPS.
"Instead of talking about a draft ratepayer report, we should be talking about more vigorous ratepayer advocacy," Ashe said.