A top aide to Muriel Bowser fielded the administration’s new nominee to the commission overseeing D.C.’s energy utilities just last month, the nominee told a D.C. Council committee on Monday.
The outgoing director of the Department of General Services, Greer Gillis, said mayoral advisor Beverly Perry spoke to her in mid-to-late October about the position, weeks before a cabinet shakeup that took Gillis out of her job.
And Willie Phillips, Bowser’s nominee to chair the commission after the retirement of longtime public official Betty Ann Kane, found out about his nomination at the same time it became public, he said. That would be Nov. 14, when Bowser sent the nomination to the council.
Job postings for the positions on the Public Service Commission went up in July, but Gillis did not apply, and Phillips only said he would seek another term as a regular member on the three-person panel. Meanwhile, an informal group of activists interviewed candidates for the $172,500 position over August and September, according to DC Sierra Club member and activist Lara Levison, and had been in talks with Perry, a former Pepco lobbyist.
Levison was part of a coalition of several environmental advocates and renewable energy proponents opposing the two nominations at a D.C. Council roundtable on Monday, arguing that they are unqualified to tackle climate change threats. The advocates also charged the chair of the Business and Economic Development Committee, Kenyan McDuffie, with hurrying the nominations after only giving notice of Monday’s hearing the day before Thanksgiving.
The seats are crucial for the District’s progress on renewable energy goals, the advocates argued, and recent climate change reports from the federal government and United Nations were on the minds of many who spoke.
“Our city needs public service commissioners with the knowledge and vision to implement the Clean Energy DC plan and rapidly transition to energy that is both clean and affordable,” testified Levison. (The Clean Energy DC report outlines the city’s path to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2032.)
Councilmembers and critical witnesses were quick to point out Gillis’ expertise in engineering and transportation, with her resume showing work in the private and public sectors on traffic management and other matters. But Levison and others said that Gillis did not have enough experience in the energy sector to help accelerate the conversion of the city’s electric grid to renewable energy sources.
For her part, Gillis said her background would help her advance pending utility projects, like undergrounding power lines. Before leading DGS, she was a top official at the District Department of Transportation.
Gillis accepted some of her shortcomings under questioning from Councilmember Mary Cheh.
“I don’t have direct experience in rate making,” said Gillis. The PSC approves rate hike proposals from utilities like Pepco. But she said she has experience procuring electricity for the District’s portfolio of public buildings, and said she prioritized energy conservation as DGS chief.
“The Mayor appoints someone for the job when she finds the right person,” mayoral spokespersonSusana Castillo wrote in an email Monday evening.
Activists said the PSC needs specialists in clean energy and utility regulation. One witness, Marchant Wentworth, claimed Gillis’ nomination was based on “cronyism and favoritism.”
Many of those advocates opposed Phillips’ nomination for chair due to his vote in favor of the Pepco-Exelon merger in 2016. That merger was twice rejected by the commission before finally gaining approval 2-1 after revisions, to the displeasure of environmentalists who said nuclear-energy-based Exelon’s motives would not align with the city’s desire to reduce energy use. But Phillips defended his record and said he had a broad range of regional and international experience in energy policy. He said his top priorities would include modernizing the city’s energy grid.
“Things have not moved as fastly as I would have liked to see,” Phillips said about the energy grid. “That being said, now I’d have an opportunity to lead, if confirmed.”
Despite his opposition to the Pepco-Exelon deal, Councilmember Charles Allen did not raise great concerns with Phillips or Gillis. McDuffie likewise appeared poised to move the confirmations swiftly.
Cheh lobbed rapid-fire questions at Gillis and Phillips during the hearing, and afterward was miffed that the PSC does not fall under the oversight of her own Committee on Transportation and the Environment. She sat in on McDuffie’s roundtable despite not being a member of the committee. “It just seems to me not sensible to put that under economic development,” said Cheh, who oversees the Department of Environment and Energy.
Allen suggested the nominations would likely pass the committee, but in an interview was open to the idea of deliberating longer even if it meant keeping the PSC seats open in the new year. Bills that aren’t approved before the end of this year will expire. McDuffie said he would keep the record open on the nominations until Dec. 6. That would allow for the nominations—which only need one confirmation vote—to get a vote before the full D.C. Council on Dec. 18.
“It’s very frustrating to have nominees come down at the end of the Council period,” Allen said.
During the hearing, when he wasn’t pressing Gillis or Phillips, Allen spoke warmly about his past interactions with both.
“I’m going to assume that we’re going to move this bill forward,” Allen said late in the hearing. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m really confident we’re going to figure it out.”