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The coming months should furnish plenty of tantalizing clashes between big players on the D.C. politics scene. For starters, there’s the already launched 2006 mayoral race, featuring marquee names such as D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty. There’s the uphill battle being waged by restaurant and bar lobbyists to beat back the anti-smoking zealots. And don’t forget the ongoing efforts by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans to convince auditors at the Office of Campaign Finance that his political-action-committee expenditures are aboveboard.
None of those struggles, however, pack as much impact for District residents as the fight between Washington Gas and the Office of the People’s Counsel for the District of Columbia. Created in 1975, the People’s Counsel is one of those government outfits with a name that evokes the days when the city was held up as a protector of the downtrodden. Its core mission is to protect the interests of consumers vis-à-vis the big utilities. And as the balmy days dwindle, the low-profile office will get a chance to prove that its moniker is more than just a clever title.
Energy experts predict a sharp rise in natural gas prices this winter—some say customers will pay 50 percent more on their heating bills. The Office of the People’s Counsel is calling on the D.C. Public Service Commission (PSC) to force Washington Gas do more to help residents who are certain to get slammed.
Don’t expect the gas monopoly to go quietly.
The D.C. people’s counsel, Elizabeth A. Noël, was reappointed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams to a fifth three-year term in 2003. She’s one of the longest-serving but most obscure mayoral appointees in the city. Noël has run the taxpayers’ public-interest law firm under three mayors, during times of financial turmoil and prosperity. Her office represents consumers when PEPCO, the phone companies, or Washington Gas come to the PSC looking for a rate increase. It’s not exactly headline-grabbing work.
But Noël says this isn’t the time for the same-old, same-old—namely, reminding Washington Gas that vulnerable residents can’t always pay their heating bills. The way Noël sees things, the record-high natural-gas prices make this prime season for prodding the big gas company. “Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures,” says Noël.
The People’s Counsel has asked the PSC to force Washington Gas to ease the impact of gas price increases this winter. The office’s Sept. 23, 2005, filing seeks the following:
•Deferred bill payments until the summer months;
•A moratorium on winter service disconnections;
•Fixed payment plans;
•A more robust company-financed emergency-relief fund; and
•Enhanced company-funded energy-efficiency programs for low-income residents.
“We decided to step it up,” Noël says. “The record [gas] prices will be potentially catastrophic for some of our residents.” Calling Washington Gas to task is “exactly what an office mandated to serve the public,” should be doing, she says.
And she doesn’t expect the PSC to acquiesce to big-company appeals. “Clearly, the commission is not unaware that there will be an adverse impact on consumers,” says Noël. Token approval of one or two of her natural-gas-price relief proposals won’t be enough. “The commission is in a position to do them all,” she says.
Noël’s office has had few high-profile victories over the years. She is praised by community activists for helping stop Georgetown University from building a new electrical-generation plant. But protecting property values in Burleith isn’t the main mission of the People’s Counsel. More often, the office advocates for residents who would feel the shock of rising utility costs. Some activists have called the People’s Counsel a toothless public-relations law firm that has little ability to make the big and powerful utilities bend to the will of consumers.
Noël’s timing for going after Washington Gas may be just right for changing that perception. Major energy producers are reporting record profits, while consumers are paying high prices at the pump. Electricity bills are also on the rise. The parent company of Washington Gas, WGL Holdings Inc., had over $2 billion in revenues in 2004, according to information on the company Web site. The company’s most recent report to shareholders for the first half of fiscal 2005 showed a net income of $123 million, up $4.3 million over the corresponding period in 2004. A little help for beleaguered consumers doesn’t seem so unreasonable.
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Washington Gas officials say they’ve already made progress on all of the price-shock-absorbing initiatives outlined in the People’s Counsel filing. Washington Gas spokesperson Miguel Gonzalez notes that the company made customers aware of the coming price hike back in the summer. “We did not wait for the [People’s Counsel] to bring this matter to the attention of the [PSC],” he says. “We began communicating with our customers a long time ago to prepare them for the winter, and [we] will make sure they are in good shape.”
Gonzalez points out that Washington Gas provides flexibility for customers who get behind on their bills. Customers can negotiate yearlong budget plans. No one is cut off without a 15-day notice, which includes information about how to get help paying one’s bill. The company administers the Washington Area Fuel Fund, which provides bill-paying assistance to qualifying customers during the winter months.
“We have been out front with our customers,” says Gonzalez. “We’ve told them what a typical Washington Gas [customer] should expect to pay this winter.” Gonzalez says his company knows when its customers are in for a rough winter: “We’ve been around for 157 years; we know what to do.”
Noël has a slightly different take on the Washington Gas line: “They have done nothing,” she says. Noël calls the company’s recent initiatives a rehashing of old ideas that does not reflect the critical situation many D.C. residents will face this winter. “This is a crisis,” she says, and “not a time for the same old program.”
At a Nov. 10 PSC hearing on the People’s Counsel filing, commissioners expressed support for moving forward with some new ideas to protect consumers—so long as Washington Gas is part of the discussions. Commissioner Anthony Rachal says the commission should “make sure we are doing something in the short term so we can come up with solutions as quickly as possible.” The hearing demonstrated that at least on the matter of a moratorium on winter gas cut-offs, the People’s Counsel and Washington Gas “seem to be moving towards a possible agreement,” says Commissioner Richard Morgan. Neither would comment on the commission’s formal order on relief for consumers, which is expected to come out in the next couple of weeks.
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who oversaw the People’s Counsel budget in previous years, says Noël’s kick in the pants to Washington Gas is a necessary consumer safeguard.
“I think Washington Gas is a pretty good civic player,” Mendelson says. “But in the final analysis, Washington Gas is concerned about profits.”
JACK IN THE BOOTH
It’s not often that a politically damaged pol gets the perfect media setup to launch a reputation overhaul.
A good friend can sure come in handy.
When WTOP’s Mark Plotkin invited Ward 2 Councilmember Evans to come on the Nov. 11 Politics Program to discuss the ongoing baseball-stadium lease negotiations, Evans gladly accepted—with one condition: He would appear only if baseball was the only topic on the agenda. That is, no questions about the ongoing D.C. Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) audit of Evans’ PAC. The OCF is now investigating whether Evans improperly reimbursed himself thousands of dollars for entertainment and travel.
Plotkin, who says he and Evans have been “good friends for about 20 years,” was upfront about the deal with listeners. He outlined the terms at the top of the show and again after Evans left.
Plotkin and Evans have long been political and social cohorts. They were joined in the 1999 effort to win the John A. Wilson Building back from federal control, and were featured as a team in the New York Times when that deal was done.
The WTOP agreement gave Evans a clean forum to deliver a tirade about Major League Baseball’s unwillingness to accept the stadium lease agreement that was hammered out in the ballpark deal. In one quick moment, Evans transformed from baseball’s biggest backer on the council to the angry guardian of the city’s finances: “Either you agree to this or you can take your team and move away,” Evans said. Not a bad line for a guy constantly fighting the perception that he often sides with big business, including the folks who contribute to his PAC. Before the PAC controversy ignited, Evans declared his interest in pursuing the council-chair position.
Plotkin maintains that good memories of hanging out in classy Georgetown haunts with his pal Jack over the years had nothing to do with the show format. WTOP Vice President for News and Programming Jim Farley says Plotkin informed him about the Evans offer, and Farley decided it was worth the trade-off. Plotkin concurred. “It is something we rarely do,” says Farley. “I can probably count the times we’ve done that on one hand.” Farley quipped that WTOP “broke the Jack PAC story and reported on it extensively….There was no new angle we needed to get him on.” Farley also says that negotiations for broadcast interviews are not unusual. “If you were to ask around at Meet the Press, you’d find out that kind of stuff gets done all the time,” he says.
Evans was a logical choice for a discussion of the stadium-lease negotiations, according to Plotkin. “He is a principal, a central player in the baseball decision,” Plotkin says. “The mayor was out of town, naturally, and Linda Cropp was out of town. Jack is key to this story.”
If anyone questions whether his friendship with Evans carries over into his professional life, says Plotkin, take a listen to the feisty commentator’s remarks after Evans left the booth. “It’s politically embarrassing,” Plotkin said on air of Evans’ PAC investigation. “It is politically harmful in that he has delayed a formal announcement for city council chair.”
“When it comes to journalism, I don’t have any friends,” Plotkin says. “Jack was livid after he heard those remarks and called me over the weekend.” At least Evans is talking to some members of the media.—James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.