State's three-person commission loses two as PGE's future looms

The Oregon Public Utility Commission could be temporarily out of business at one of the most critical times in its history unless Gov. Ted Kulongoski acts quickly, says a former commissioner.

Joan Smith, who left the commission in April, said the governor does not 'have a moment to lose' in finding replacements for her and Roy Hemmingway, chairman of the three-member commission, whose retirement in September was announced last week.

OPUC faces three critical rate decisions and the pending sale of Portland General Electric, the state's largest electric utility, in the months ahead.

'This is a crisis to have two new people on the commission in a volatile time in the energy field,' Smith said. 'This is not a game, a political plum. This is hard work. They need to start Monday; whoever they pick has to go before the Senate, and that's very political. There's not a moment to lose.'

With the commission's intricate electricity, gas, water and telecommunications oversight, it takes a year 'before anything makes sense' to a new commissioner, Smith said.

Lee Beyer will be the lone OPUC member with experience after Hemmingway leaves. Without a quorum, the commission could not act.

Kulongoski is expected to name commission members 'sometime this summer,' said the governor's spokeswoman, Marian Hammond, but 'there's no shortlist at this point,' she added.

Among the people supported by energy consumer groups are: Leanne Bleakney, who served as chief of staff for former Senate President Gene Derfler, R-Salem; Don Dauterman, chief executive officer of Dura Metals in Tualatin; Randy Franke, a former Marion County commissioner who ran against Senate President Peter Courtney; and John Siekas, head of Oregon Steel Mills' electric and gas energy unit.

Oregon Steel, one of the state's biggest energy users, has a vested interest in lowering electricity costs. It shut down its melt shop this year because of high energy costs.

Other names floated for the utility board are: Ray Baum, a La Grande Republican who is a former House majority leader and friend of Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Jeanne Arana, administrator of the community resources division for Oregon Housing and Community Services.

Oregon Steel Vice President Vicki Tagliafico said the commission needs 'someone who truly understands the entire energy environment or has a business perspective.'

Attorney Melinda Davison, who represents the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, said they're seeking a group of commissioners 'who are fair and balanced.

'We've seen some key decisions over the last several years that we believe did not reflect the balancing of interests.'

Enron Corp.'s proposed sale of PGE Ñ which may be announced later this month Ñ would require months of review by OPUC. It also would largely remove PGE from the oversight of OPUC, which doesn't have jurisdiction over consumer-owned utilities. That doesn't mean the commission would become less relevant, Smith said.

OPUC would 'still have jurisdiction over the safety of PUDs and PGE, 35 phone companies, 20 water companies and gas companies.'

Dan Meek of the Oregon Public Power Coalition, which is campaigning for the public takeover of PGE, has accused OPUC of being largely pro-utility, particularly in approving PGE's 53 percent rate increase last year.

'I just appeal every decision to the courts,' he said. 'I don't ever expect them to decide cases correctly.'

Contact Kristina Brenneman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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