Participating in A Public Hearing

Why is it important that you become involved?

A NOTE ON BECOMING INVOLVED...

Testimony by utility customers at public hearings is an important part of utility ratemaking. Urge your friends and acquaintances to get involved. The number of people who show up for the public testimony makes a statement about how strongly utility consumers feel. When only one or two consumers testify, the PUC notices. They may conclude that there is a lack of interest, or no real opposition to higher rates.

Even if you are not interested in testifying the first time you attend a public hearing, come anyway. It's a good chance to see what groups in your area are consumer-oriented.

If you think you want to participate, but don't know enough about the facts, here's a way to start. Upon request, the Office of the Public Advocate can hold meetings in areas which will be affected by utility rate increases.

Now that you are participating in the utility regulatory process, you might also consider joining a local consumer group and working actively in your area. Organized public testimony coupled with a letter writing campaign to legislators and other elected officials may help to strengthen your case. Join us as we participate in the ratemaking process... TOGETHER WE CAN MAKE OUR VOICES HEARD.

GENERAL GUIDELINES FOR CONSUMER PARTICIPATION IN PUBLIC HEARINGS HELD BY THE MAINE PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION

  1. Need for Consumer Participation
  2. Hearing Format
  3. Preparing to Testify Effectively
  4. Hearing Day

I. Need for Consumer Participation

As telephone, gas, water and electric bills climb higher than ever, consumers are asking what possible influence they can have over such drastically rising costs.

Part of the answer is in participating in the utility regulatory process.

Utility rate increases don't happen overnight. Companies must follow certain procedures before rate hikes take place, including formal hearings and public statements. The whole process usually takes nine months.

By law, the Public Advocate represents consumers' interests in utility rate cases. Our staff of four attorneys -- often with the help of expert utility consultants -- prepare and present testimony in hearings.

However, the only way that public utility customers can present their opinions and ideas directly to the Public Utilities Commission is to testify at a public hearing.

The opportunity to speak out is a built-in procedure in every major utility case. The rate case process begins when a utility requests permission from the Public Utilities Commission to increase rates. The PUC must review the utility's application and hold hearings to allow the public and participants in the case to present their viewpoints. Then the PUC examines the evidence and decides what rate increase, if any, is necessary.

Hearings usually last several days, with time set aside for the public, the utility, and other participants, such as the Public Advocate, to raise issues and state their positions.

If requested, the PUC will often hold public hearings in the area served by the utility. Hearings are scheduled for evening hours upon request.

II. Hearing Format

Hearings are conducted in a somewhat formal manner because the process is, in effect, a trial held to determine if the utility should be allowed a rate increase.

A lawyer from the PUC staff is designated as Hearings Examiner and is given overall responsibility for the day to day conduct of the case. He or she usually presides over the hearing. In this respect, he or she functions as a judge and makes decisions on what questions are proper or what motions are allowed. Public hearings are usually attended by one or more members of the Commission, as well.

Also present are the attorneys for the participants in the case (referred to as parties or intervenors). The number of attorneys is usually determined by the importance of the case -- the amount of increase requested and the number of consumers involved.

The length of the public testimony portion of the hearing depends on the number of witnesses who choose to testify and the length of the testimony. Public hearings are usually set for afternoon and evening sessions on the same day, to accommodate consumers' varying schedules.

Before accepting testimony, the Hearing Examiner will always ask whether the witness will make a statement under oath (sworn statement) or without taking an oath (unsworn statement). NO WEIGHT IS GIVEN TO PUBLIC STATEMENTS NOT MADE UNDER OATH. For this reason, the Public Advocate urges consumers to make sworn statements. Only sworn statements become part of the official record and can be considered by the Commissioners in making their decisions in the case.

Those who make unsworn statements probably do so because they underrate the value of the evidence they present or because they will not then become subject to questions from attorneys in the case. But there is no reason to be intimidated by the questioning process (also known as cross examination).

First, and most important, you the consumer are the expert on your reactions to the utility's request for a rate increase. Second, you are the best authority on how such a proposed rate hike will affect your ability to pay future bills. Third, who knows more than you do about the quality of service you receive from the utility company?

Usually, consumers are not questioned about the statements they make, except by the Commissioners themselves. If an attorney does choose to ask questions, they are generally to clear up any portions of the testimony that were vague or hard to follow or to elicit further information.

On rare occasions an attorney may ask more difficult - questions about the statements made by the witness. There are safeguards to protect the consumer from a hostile lawyer who attempts to badger a witness. The Public Advocate attorney, as the consumers' representative, is there to defend you. He or she will object to questions that are improper.

The Hearing Examiner is also there to see that the proceeding is orderly and will make sure that disruptive behavior is not allowed.

Adequate preparation prior to testimony is a must. You should think about the points that you want to make in advance. Become familiar with any records you might want to use. Here are some suggestions for planning effective testimony.

III. Preparing to Testify Effectively

Consumer testimony often falls into two major categories -- (1) the impact of proposed rates and (2) the quality of service. The following list shows the kinds of items that can be used to testify about the impact of higher rates on your pocketbook.

(1) Rate Impact

  • Source and amount of your income compared to the amount of utility bills.
  • Lower usage, but higher bills.
  • Increased percentage of monthly budget set aside for utility bills.
  • Conservation measures you have taken because of utility rates and how they have changed the quality of your life.
  • Burden of late payment charges.
  • Advertising costs that the utility includes in the rate increase request.
  • Whether your business can survive the increase, if not, how many jobs will be lost.

This list is only a sample. You should determine what you want to say and what you think will be most likely to persuade the Commission of your viewpoint.

When presenting testimony, you should be as specific as possible about any figures used. When discussing the amounts of bills, you should take copies of them to the hearing just in case they are needed.

The purpose of the hearing is to present your statement, not to question the company. For example, you may use a question to illustrate a point, such as "Why does the utility promote the use of energy when as a monopoly it has captive customers?" However, you cannot ask the company attorney (during the hearing) specific questions about the amount spent for advertising or how many TV commercials the utility paid for in the previous year.

(2) Quality of Service

Both general and specific statements about the quality of a utility company's service are useful in a rate case. Utilities cannot charge more than a service is worth.

Here are some subjects consumers can mention when service quality is a concern. In each instance, you should not only describe the problem, when it happened and how frequently, but you should also state what action you want from the company.

Sample service problems are:

  • Estimated and erroneous bills.
  • Frequent loss of service or power outages.
  • Fairness of the company's disconnection procedures.
  • Foul-tasting water.
  • Poor sound quality in telephones.
  • Inability to dial phone numbers without disconnections.

Again, specific examples and dates are very helpful, along with any written documents that can support statements about quality of service. In some instances, problems with the utility can be solved at the hearing. Often utility companies have representatives available to work with consumers, or the company attorney may take note of the problem.

Effective consumer testimony stems from describing as accurately as possible what the rate hike means to the individual consumer, and backing up the statement with specific examples.

If you are having problems on a frequent basis we recommend keeping a log of your difficulties. Our office has samples available.

IV. Hearing Day

  1. Try to arrive at the hearing at least 15 minutes before it is scheduled to begin. You should then find and sign the sign-up sheet which tells the PUC Hearing Examiner that you wish to make a statement. If many people wish to testify, you may have to wait your turn. However, if you have a time problem and need to get back to work, for example, note that on the sign-up sheet and also tell the Hearing Examiner. He or she will try to see that you testify as soon as possible. In hearings involving a large number of -public witnesses, the Hearing Examiner may have to set a limit on how long each witness can testify.
  2. Occasionally the Hearing Examiner administers the oath to all witnesses at once at the outset of the hearing. If not, he or she will administer your oath when it is your turn to testify.
  3. Once you have taken the oath, you should give your name and address for the record, and state that you are a customer of the utility involved in the case. You generally cannot testify if you are not served by the utility involved.
  4. You may be asked to spell your name and to speak slowly enough for the reporter to make a record of your statement. The reporter has an important role to play in seeing that a complete and accurate record (called a transcript) is kept of what happens at a hearing. It is the official record of the hearing.
  5. After you have completed your testimony, the examiner will ask the Commissioners and the other attorneys if they have any questions for you.

One final point - SPEAK UP. A common error consumer witnesses make is speaking too quietly. Public hearings are often held in large rooms with poor acoustics. Don't let all that preparation go to waste. You don't need to shout, but do speak more loudly than you usually do.

IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS OR CONCERNS WHICH ARE NOT ANSWERED HERE, PLEASE CALL THE PUBLIC ADVOCATE OFFICE IN AUGUSTA. OUR NUMBER IS (207) 287-2445 OR FAX YOUR QUESTIONS (207) 287-4317. WE ARE ALSO MAKING 10-PERSON COMPLAINT FORMS AVAILABLE.