Maryland Utilities Commission Asserts Itself

Michael Giberson

The Washington Post story is headlined, “O’Malley Encouraging Utilities Commission To Assert Its Powers“:

The hearing on the 16th floor of the state government building in Baltimore was as charged as a cross-examination. Two Verizon officials were called to appear before Maryland’s utility regulators to explain a 50 percent increase in customer complaints about their phone service. And from the first moment, it was clear a grilling was in order.

“What are you doing to improve the service?” demanded Steven B. Larsen, the new chairman of the Public Service Commission. Another commissioner, Lawrence Brenner, told the phone company representatives, “It helps if you come along willingly rather than be dragged.”

The article explains that while the Commission is officially less prominent than other state agencies with larger staffs and budgets, “it is emerging under Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) as an aggressive force.” The key word in that last phrase is “under.”

Larsen called the case the “most immediate example” of the commission’s more aggressive approach to regulation, which he said has been adopted slowly by some on the commission staff.

He said some staff members asked, “Why don’t you give them a phone call?” But, Larsen said, “it was obvious to me that we needed to do something immediately.”

It isn’t clear from the article over what period the “50 percent increase in customer complaints” occurred or just how many complaints are at issue. If the 50 percent increase happened quickly, then maybe immediate action was reasonable. If we’re talking a 50 percent higher total last year than the year before, I would wonder why the Commission waited so long to take action (when they could have, you know, made a phone call back when complaints were only 25 percent higher).

Of course, a discrete phone call to signal Commission concerns won’t show how much the Governor cares and won’t generate stories in the press about Martin O’Malley, man of action. Do you get the feeling that the phone calls that the Commission cares most about are those that come from the Governor’s office?