Alabama Public Service Commission Attempts to Block Media, Public from Broadcasting Formal Meetings

From its earliest days to its most recent, the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) has held open formal meetings as required by law. Now, however, the PSC wants to change all that.

The Public Service Commission has been hiding behind closed doors for years. But blocking all electronic devices from a formal hearing? It just doesn’t pass the smell test.

It wasn’t just us that noticed. Radio and television broadcasters and print journalists from around the state are pushing back on ridiculous rules meant to block public access to the, ahem, Public Service Commission. 

Now, we need your help. Stand with us for transparency.

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Wait, what’s going on?

By law (the 2005 Open Meetings Act), all PSC meetings must be open to the public. And the commissioners must physically be on location. Simple, right?

Unfortunately, the PSC is trying to pull a fast one on us.

In a filing from March 5 of this year, the PSC adopted a so-called “Media Coverage Plan” for its formal meetings. The PSC decided to make the “interim” plan effective immediately. Who has time for the consideration of the pesky public right?

Well, it was perfect timing for the PSC. Just four days later the PSC would start a formal hearing to consider one of the largest ever requests by Alabama Power.

Long story short: the PSC is trying to make it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to record and broadcast their formal meetings. You can’t even use an electronic device inside the hearing room. Nevermind that Commissioners used electronic devices inside the hearing room. My dad used to say “Do as I say, not as I do.” Sounds about right. 

Don’t take our word for it. Read the PSC’s so-called Media Plan here.

So what’s the problem? As the Alabama Press Association, Alabama Broadcasters Association, and AL.com noted in their comments against the plan:

(A)ny party, witness, attorney, commissioner or presiding administrative law judge can order the cessation of coverage of a proceeding. This veto power places unprecedented authority in the hands of a select few persons and is clearly meant to suppress public scrutiny based on a single vote. In other words, broadcasting will be prohibited only when everyone involved in the hearing agrees there will be broadcasting. Such a condition flies in the face of the Open Meetings Act.

It’s as simple as that, really. Almost anyone at any public hearing wants the cameras and microphones shut off, then the cameras and microphones will get shut off. Let’s be blunt. There is absolutely nothing open about this new rule. It’s painfully obvious what’s going on here. The PSC is trying to shut out public knowledge of their meetings. The only question is: Why? Maybe they’d rather you not see all the favors they do for Alabama Power.

We Cry Foul

Anyone with a shred of intellectual integrity has to admit it that the PSC is trying to limit transparency. As you’ll remember, that transparency is formally codified in state law. The PSC can not legislate from the bench.

Nobody else does this. Around the country, the Alabama PSC stands alone here. Both the Mississippi and the Georgia Public Service Commissions broadcast all its meetings and hearings online. Both allow electronic devices in the hearing room and both allow anyone to come in, to record or to stream. 

We cry foul. And it’s not just us. Check out this list of Alabama broadcasters and news outlets who agree that the PSC has overstepped its bounds:

  • AL.com (Birmingham News, Huntsville Times, Mobile Press-Register, etc.)
  • 24 daily newspapers including the Montgomery Advertiser, Tuscaloosa News, Florence TimesDaily and more)
  • 99 non-daily newspapers
  • The major TV broadcasters in Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery, and Mobile

The PSC does not have the authority to stop the recording of meetings and hearings. The PSC does not have the authority to block electronic devices. The PSC does not have the authority to flout state law. 

It’s time for the people of Alabama to tell the PSC, “We Dare Defend Our Rights!”

 

The Alabama Public Service Commission Should Suspend Disconnections and Late Fees During COVID-19 Pandemic

Amid the devastation and heartbreak caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) has a golden opportunity to do something truly positive. Without delay, the PSC should suspend disconnections and late fees across the entire state. And the reason is simple: It’s the right thing to do.

Many utilities have taken action voluntarily and we applaud those utilities for acting to protect consumers. Even if some of them like Alabama Power had to be dragged kicking and screaming…

Disappointingly, there are still many utilities in Alabama disconnecting customers during a global pandemic. Voluntary commitments are better than nothing, however, they are not a substitute for a legally binding order that gives customers recourse if a utility does not comply. 

Mississippi has already acted. Alabama should do the same. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But right now.

And if the PSC won’t do it, Governor Ivey must step in for the good of every Alabamian.

 

What Are Disconnections, Anyway?

For those unfamiliar with the term, a disconnection is pretty much what it sounds like. If you don’t pay your utility bill, your service typically gets disconnected. It’s as simple as that. 

But we’re not living in normal times. And in Mississippi, the PSC has taken laudable steps to protect their citizens.

Not so in Alabama.

 

Staying Home

On April 3rd, Governor Kay Ivey issued a statewide stay-at-home order that effectively shut Alabama down. Businesses were shuttered, non-essential services stopped, and millions of people immediately saw drastic changes to their everyday lives.

Issuing the order was the right thing to do, but the order came with some negative side effects. In order to beat this coronavirus, we all have to do our part – including social distancing. But for many Alabamians, staying home means missing out on a paycheck (or two or three). Not to mention the economic fallout may be with us for quite some time.

 

Paying the Bills

For many in Alabama, missing a paycheck or two can have profound consequences. After all, how long would you be able to pay for groceries and your utility bill without a steady paycheck?

Here’s the thing. If you can’t go to work, you might not have money to pay your bills. Across Alabama, we’re hearing the same story. It’s not that people want to stay home and miss work. They have to stay home – because it’s the law, because they cannot work, and because they’re trying to do their part. And because they’re obeying the law, they may not be able to work or pay their utility bills.

So why are some utility companies still shutting off people’s services right now? It’s wrong. You know it. We know it. Everyone knows it.

And the Alabama PSC needs to do something about it. If the PSC believes it cannot act because of limitations in Alabama law, it is morally obligated to air those concerns publicly. We cannot stand by and watch Alabamians suffer because of a technicality or a loophole.

 

Mississippi is Protecting Consumers

On March 15, the Mississippi PSC temporarily suspended disconnections for 60 days. The restriction applied to all water, sewer, electricity and gas services it regulated. Eleven days later, they suspended online convenience fees as well.

Not satisfied, the Mississippi’s PSC went even further by asking the Mississippi Attorney General for guidance on whether it had the authority to stop disconnections for all utilities in the state, even the municipal utilities and electric cooperatives it didn’t normally regulate. 

Bravo, Mississippi! That’s leadership. 

Now it’s time for the Alabama PSC to follow suit.

 

An Unacceptable Delay

On March 18th, Energy Alabama joined with 12 organizations calling on the PSC to issue an order suspending disconnections across the state. In Alabama, only two electric and gas utilities are normally regulated by the PSC, Alabama Power and Spire. But we called on the PSC to suspend disconnections and late fees for all utilities statewide and if it couldn’t act, we asked it to clarify what legal obstacles were present. Alabamians deserve answers and actions.

Since then, the PSC has failed to act. Since then, the PSC has failed to respond. Enough. Now is the time to do what’s right. We’ve contacted every utility in Alabama, and there are still many utilities cutting people off during this time of fear and uncertainty.

That is unacceptable.

Act now, Commissioners. You have the ability to offer much-needed relief to the people of Alabama. We trust you want to do the right thing.

Energy Alabama among groups calling for stop to electricity shutoffs during pandemic

Energy Alabama is among a dozen organizations that have called on the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association (TVPPA) to urge its member utilities to immediately halt service disconnection and late fees for families during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

 

TVPPA’s members include the electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities who serve 9 million people across seven states in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s service area. In the letter, the groups identified five of TVPPA’s large utilities that had taken these kinds of actions to protect their customers, adding that many TVPPA members may still be charging customers late fees and cutting off service for non-payment.

 

 

TVA has authorized deferred wholesale power payments in its service area, according to the groups’ letter, and increased federal funding to help low-income households with energy bills was included in the recent federal stimulus package. TVPPA members should not cut off service or add late fees onto the bills of families who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in dire economic straits for the foreseeable future.

This tool from Appalachian Voices allows you to find out if your local utility has implemented a Covid-19 policy, and provides information for who to call if they have not done so.

Energy Alabama and Gasp Appreciate Alabama Power’s Belabored Decision Not to Disconnect Service or Charge Late Fees During COVID-19 Crisis

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (March 19, 2020) — On Friday, March 13, Governor Kay Ivey declared a State of Emergency as the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Alabama. That evening, in response to this crisis, Gasp and Energy Alabama called for Alabama Power, the largest utility in the state, to put a moratorium on service disconnections and late fees until at least May 1. By last weekend, most investor-owned utilities across the country had made meaningful moves to suspend shutoffs.

Unfortunately, Alabama Power was unwilling to issue a full-throated public statement or even a clear announcement on its website about its intentions. Language matters. Instead of decisive language, Alabama Power made ambiguous statements claiming they had “no plans” to disconnect service “for those impacted by COVID-19” and, later, “customers financially affected.” 

We continued to take the company to task this week. We wrote a letter to the Public Service Commission, along with 12 other organizations, asking it to issue an emergency order suspending shutoffs and the accrual of late fees for all regulated electric, gas, water, and telecommunication utilities for all customers. 

Yesterday, it appears Alabama Power agreed to the terms we set for the people of Alabama: no disconnections, no late fees. They published an article on their company-owned website, Alabama News Center, stating that “Alabama Power has pledged not to disconnect customers or charge late fees for those affected* by the COVID-19 crisis.”

This afternoon at 4:35 p.m. Central Daylight Time, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson posted to Twitter confirming that pledge and, perhaps, going even further. He said Alabama Power, Mobile Area Water & Sewer System, and Spire “will suspend all cutoffs of service for people who cannot pay their bills during #COVID19.”

It does appear that customers in jeopardy of missing a payment must still contact Alabama Power’s customer service line. On their company-owned news website, they say “customers that need our help to let us know by contacting Customer Service at alabamapower.com or 1-800-245-2244.” We still believe this is an unnecessary step and it should be removed.

We further believe Alabama Power should update its corporate website homepage to reflect the straightforward text of today’s announcement: that the company will not shut off any customers and will not charge any late fees until after the COVID-19 crisis.

This was never a political issue. Asking the largest utility company in the State of Alabama to be super clear about its intentions was and is justified to protect basic human needs during this pandemic. Calling for the Alabama Public Service Commission to issue an emergency order suspending shutoffs and late fees for ALL utilities (electric, water, sewer, telecommunication) under its jurisdiction  was and is essential to protect all Alabamians. 

Gasp and Energy Alabama are appreciative of the thousands of dedicated Alabama Power employees still going into work, day in and day out, to keep the lights on. The company would be better off if its C-suite were as reliable and clear-eyed as their workers.

*This is not just a public health crisis. It’s also an economic and social crisis. Everyone is affected.

Polling Shows Alabama Conservatives Want Energy Freedom, Not Status Quo

The results are in: Alabama’s conservatives want energy freedom!

Energy freedom means having more choices. It means a competitive marketplace in which renewables are much more widely available.

What it doesn’t mean is the same old, same old.

So while “freedom isn’t free”, according to Seth Hammett and the Energy Institute of Alabama, the status quo is sure to be more expensive and unacceptable to Alabama.

 

And Now, Some Facts

Let’s back up.

Mr. Hammett recently wrote an editorial that appeared in the Alabama Political Reporter. Mr. Hammett is the ex-Speaker of the House and Chairman of the Board for the Energy Institute of Alabama, the lobbying group representing Alabama’s monopoly utilities. According to Mr. Hammett, Alabama really ought to just side with his monopoly buddies because freedom, or something. He seems to think that because renewables do actually cost money to install and maintain (you know, like any other energy source), his special-interest group of utilities ought to reign supreme.

Yeah, no.

Here are some facts.

  1. The Energy Institute of Alabama (EIA) represents monopoly utility companies that are currently immune to market forces and competition.
  2. EIA claims in the article linked above that Alabama’s utilities are “increasing solar capacity.” Yeah, sure. At the slowest rate of any state in the country. Including Mississippi!
  3. The people of Alabama want choices! Including us! Polling backs us up, and we’ll get to that shortly. It’s simple: Because of utility failures and slow action, consumers aren’t willing to wait any longer.
  4. Alabama conservatives believe in free markets. They believe choices require utility companies to step up their game and compete for their business.

Conservatives Want Choices

Which leads us to the polling.

Recently, WPA Intelligence released a poll that shows Alabama’s conservative voters support utility deregulation, energy freedom, and more renewable options in their energy mix.

Click here for a summary of the poll. Don’t take our word for it! See for yourself!

Now, for a few key findings:

  • More than half of Alabama Republican primary voters (54%) would support passing legislation that would give consumers more freedom to control their energy usage. This is directly in opposition to Mr. Hammett’s argument.
  • Nearly two-thirds (!) support passing legislation that would give consumers more choice in determining how their electricity is produced. Again, this flies in the face of Mr. Hammett’s argument.
  • Seven-in-ten support energy deregulation in Alabama. This would lead directly to several producers competing on price, service, and production methods. Wow!
  • A majority think it is important to have the choice to buy power from a company that uses more renewable energy sources. We agree!
  • Two-out-of-three support the development of clean energy like solar and wind in Alabama. Awesome!

Again, read the poll for yourself. Please don’t just accept our word for it. Read the study. Learn the facts. Don’t let catchy slogans distract you from the truth. Alabama’s conservatives want energy freedom. Period.

Mr. Hammett and the EIA have a vested interest in maintaining the entrenched monopoly. Look, we get it. Lobbyists gonna lobby; he’s doing his job.

However, the conservatives of Alabama have spoken loudly and clearly. The monopoly says freedom isn’t free? We never did either. Freedom sure isn’t the status quo. And energy freedom is almost sure to cost less.