If you’ve followed The Watchdog’s shenanigans, you probably know that in 2018 I symbolically stripped the ‘P’ from the name of the Public Utility Commission.
As I’ve said over and over, the (p)UC can have its ‘P’ back if it shows it cares more about the public and not only utilities.
Utilities dominated the agency. Some electricity companies were not disciplined for taking advantage of loopholes in the law to create dozens of new fees that cost consumers. The (p)UC displayed a leave-them-alone attitude, claiming that was best for a deregulated competitive marketplace. And when the deadly February freezeout occurred, these and other weaknesses revealed themselves in stunning fashion.
Last month, the (p)UC took what could be a major step in that direction when commissioners created the Office of Public Engagement.
I interviewed Mike Hoke, the director of the new office, along with (p)UC spokesman Rich Parsons, about this. Here are excerpts of our conversation, edited for space.
Watchdog: I’m excited about the Office of Public Engagement. Tell me why y’all have done this.
Mike Hoke: A lot of what the (p)UC does affects the lives and livelihoods of all Texans. What we do can be very technical and hard to understand. It requires the public to do a lot of work to come to the agency. And the idea is turning it around so the agency comes to the people. It helps the public navigate the process we have here so they can have a louder voice.
Watchdog: Some of us in the public believe the energy lobbyists are all powerful. Does this balance out a little better the public vs. the industry?
Hoke: Even for the industry and the lobbyists, having the public voice appear, with better information, they’re going to have better knowledge. It’s not an us vs. them. We need the public involved so we make better and more informed decisions.
Watchdog: I don’t know if you’re aware but four years ago I symbolically stripped the “P” from (p)UC – and said, “You get it back when you start caring about the public.” Are you familiar with that little campaign I ran?
Rich Parsons: Yeah, we’ve seen it.
Watchdog: This could actually get you your ‘P’ back. If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what would. Under the old system, the public had to submit its comments using a specific “project number,” right?
Hoke: Yeah, if you want to submit an official comment there’s a process to file it online.
Watchdog: And it’s very complicated. It’s the hardest agency in the state for the public to communicate with. One time, I ran a campaign where I asked the public to write letters. If the letters don’t go to the exact correct long project number, they get lost. But now with this Office of Public Engagement, if I want to comment on policy, are you going to simplify it?
Hoke: We want different means of access and of communication. Now we have online filing. Before you had to send a dozen paper copies. I want to give as many ways for the public to engage.
Watchdog: What are the different ways?
Hoke: It’s as simple as updating the website to make it easier [to use].
Parsons: That is one of my very top priorities – to get our digital resources to a place where the people of Texas can use it easily.
Watchdog: In the announcement it says, “The office will provide a single point of contact for consumers, stakeholders, and other affected parties.” Where do the lobbyists fit in?
Hoke: That’s not really my concern.
Watchdog: So the lobbyists don’t go through the Office of Public Engagement?
Parsons: The industry will always necessarily have a voice here as a regulated entity. The industry pays people who know how to navigate this process. And what we’re doing – we have somebody here who will now be able to help the public navigate this process.
Watchdog: Is social media going to be part of this?
Hoke: Yes, definitely.
Watchdog: Let’s say I want the power grid in Texas to join up with the other two national grids, so I would go to the Office of Public Engagement?
Hoke: Yes, we’re going to try out different channels for the public to be able to have a louder voice.
Watchdog: Mike, how long have you been with the (p)UC?
Hoke: About eight years. I was director of government relations.
Watchdog: So you were the middle person between the (p)UC and the legislators, right?
Hoke: Correct. I carried messages from the legislators back to the agency and conveyed information to the legislators. It’s similar to what I’ll be doing here. That information has to flow in both directions.
Watchdog: Back in 2000, I reported that the (p)UC disbanded the Oversight and Enforcement Division. What’s the status on that now?
Parsons: The Compliance and Enforcement Division was reformed in August 2021.
Watchdog: That’s terrific. [It chases violators, a necessary function not always handled.] On another matter, there’s been a lot of turnover at the (p)UC in the past year or so. I don’t think people realize that after the February freezeout, all of the top appointed officials are now gone. It’s a different (p)UC than it was a few years ago. So giving you a moment to brag, what are the three most important improvements that maybe folks aren’t aware of?
Parsons: The first is the effort and commitment to communication. That’s pretty exciting. The second is the close working relationship with [power grid operator] ERCOT. We have oversight of ERCOT, but that relationship is much closer now.
Watchdog: Do you have a third?
Hoke: The Legislature passed very significant legislation, and we’ve implemented significant changes in how the grid is run. [We’re] focusing on reliability. We’ve got rules on weatherization of power plants. We’ve done practical things to strengthen the grid and improve reliability. This has made a difference this last summer and over the last winter with our record demand for electricity. The grid has remained resilient.
Watchdog: I think the (p)UC, for the 17 years I’ve been covering it, has been one of the most disliked public agencies in Texas. The public is not a fan. I hope all these initiatives work out, because if they do, this Office of Public Engagement could solve a lot of problems. You’ll be hearing our voices clearly in an organized fashion without having to know project numbers and bureaucratic weirdness.
I ended by telling them: “As The Watchdog, on behalf of our readers, I wish you all the best with this new endeavor.”
Maybe, just maybe, they can get the “P” back.
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The Dallas Morning News Watchdog column is the 2019 winner of the top prize for column writing from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The contest judge called his winning entries “models of suspenseful storytelling and public service.”
Read his winning columns:
* Helping the widow of Officer J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, get buried beside her late husband
* Helping a waitress who was harmed by an unscrupulous used car dealer