EP 006 – Public Utilities Commission of Rhode Island
MARISA: Good afternoon. This is Environmentally Speaking. I am Marisa Desautel an environmental attorney with a few decades of experience. And with me today is Clarice.
CLARICE: Hey, everybody. Marisa is back after last week’s episode. I promise she wasn’t gone forever. I’m Clarice. I’m a paralegal bringing your topics and questions to the table. And this week I picked the PUC. A couple of weeks ago we talked about how oftentimes in the office there’s a theme of the week. And this week I feel like I have been living in alphabet soup between the RIPUC, the EFSB. There’s a lot going on. I picked the PUC which is the Public Utilities Commission of Rhode Island and that’s been the world I’ve been living in.
MARISA: And you’ve been loving every second of it?
CLARICE: So much. I’m daydreaming about them. I can’t even finish that line.
MARISA: Regulatory acronyms. So the PUC with the acronym meaning Public Utilities Commission is a quasi-judicial tribunal that deals with statutory standards of conduct in the state. They’re a commission that’s created by state law in Rhode Island. Specifically they are mandated to supervise, regulate, and make written orders dealing with company conduct, which companies offer to the public energy, communication, and transportation services. They also deal with water supplies, unreasonable rates and tolls. But for the most part the Public Utilities Commission is dealing with energy, communication, and transportation services. And it’s actually made up of two different bodies. You’ve got the Public Utilities Commission which is a commission, a panel of board members as well as the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers. They’re a little bit different. I’m happy to go into that, but maybe we just stick with the Public Utilities Commission to start.
CLARICE: Yeah. So it sounds like kind of a broad overall is the Public Utilities Commission deals with everything it takes sort of to make the town or city run, all of its basic functions, its transportation, its electricity, its water, everything it kind of needs to have its basic functionings.
[0:03:12] MARISA: Yeah. That’s a good way to express it. And interestingly enough one of the things that I learned from doing this work is you don’t realize the different entities that exist in Rhode Island that exist simply to make sure that you have drinking water every day, that your telephone bill is not unreasonable. Not that you take things for granted but unless you’re immersed in the work you don’t really know how rates are set and how your clean drinking water is being billed to you as a consumer. You’ve got a few different water authorities in the state of Rhode Island. They have to appear before the Public Utilities Commission. They’re a quasi-state group that deal with water supply by county, but they’re ultimately regulated by the Public Utilities Commission.
CLARICE: How does that work? How do these – and I’m sure it’s not just water. I’m sure there’s a similar kind of breakdown for electric and communication and things like that. How do these quasi almost county based operations interact with the – the bigger umbrella?
MARISA: So I’m going to avoid electricity because that’s probably the most complicated area that the PUC – or that I work on for the PUC. But water rates are a good example. And trust me, those cases are very complicated. But since we’re already talking about it, let’s say, for example, you own property in the East Bay. You would get your water from the Bristol County Water Authority. Let’s say you live in Bristol. So now you’re dealing with the Bristol County Water Authority and you get a bill from them. I think it’s quarterly. And you can see on that bill that you’ve consumed a certain amount of water within that time period and you can see that that amount of water is then billed to you at a certain rate per gallon, let’s say.
And then there are taxes on top of that. You might have service fees on top of that, administrative fees and you just – you write the check. And those amounts vary by season, but for the most part you know your average water usage per quarter. The rate itself, though, can fluctuate depending on what’s happening outside of the four walls of the actual water county building. Let’s say there’s a drought. You know, with climate change that’s happening we’re already seeing an increase in water rates, supply and demand situation.
If there’s not enough water around and people are still consuming it at the rate they always have, it puts a demand on the system that the water authority then has to meet. And they have various methods by which they try to meet the water demand. But if they’re going to a third party to try to get more water, then they’re subject to that third party’s increased rates and fees. So the Public Utilities Commission gets involved to make sure that those scenarios are properly covered and properly billed to the consumer. The PUC ultimately is concerned with protecting the consumer. So in that example that I just gave, the PUC is looking out for the homeowner and the party consuming water.
[0:06:57] CLARICE: Oh, so the county is kind of the person taking action and the PUC is looking over it and deciding whether or not that action is acceptable and in the best interest of all of the people who will be affected by it?
MARISA: Yeah. That’s right.
CLARICE: So how do attorneys fit in? I mean, I’ve seen our paperwork. I kind of have a sense of it. Talk a little bit more about how we get involved.
MARISA: Any corporation in Rhode Island must be represented by an attorney in order to appear before any state agency or in the court system. So let’s say we’re representing a corporate client. They would hire us to file an entry of appearance which is essentially a document telling, in this example, the Public Utilities Commission, hello, my name is Marisa Desautel and I represent this corporate entity. I’m going to be appearing on their behalf and making arguments. And it’s not going to be the corporate CEO that shows up and tries to do this. It’s got to be an attorney. So that’s the first hurdle, got to be an attorney.
Once the matter is before the Public Utilities Commission – and when I say before I mean the corporate entity has to either be brought into the Public Utilities Commission or they have to make their own filing which means they want to take some kind of affirmative action to get approval from the PUC for, let’s say, changing its water rate. We’ll stick with that example. So I would appear before the Public Utilities Commission, file whatever pleadings are appropriate for the particular subject matter, and then return to the Public Utilities Commission for a preliminary conference to set up the scheduling, to go through any preliminary issues and arguments, and then ultimately to set a procedural schedule to move forward with whatever hearing proceedings the PUC requires.
CLARICE: The PUC I know is its own commission like you said before, so do matters go in front of the commission and to court, or are there steps that separate like first you go to the commission and then you go to court? Or can you go straight into the courthouse?
MARISA: It depends of course on the cause of action, but I would say as a general rule the Public Utilities Commission is your first stop if you’re a water utility or telecommunications carrier or an energy company. You go there first. You get your decision from them. And then depending on what statute you’re dealing with, sometimes there’s a right of appeal directly to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. And then sometimes there’s a right of appeal to the Rhode Island Superior Court. So it depends on the matter.
[0:10:02] CLARICE: It sounds like these are going to be lengthy matters no matter what the subject is.
MARISA: Yes. Yes. As are most regulatory situations. They’re not real estate closings that happen in a couple of months which are also very stressful. But, yeah, these types of regulatory oversight and approvals take years, can take years.
CLARICE: Moving on to the idea of open meetings. We’ve attended several open meetings for the PUC. They’re constantly coming up in my inbox. Is that something for anybody to attend? I know that you said an attorney has to come in for a corporation, but could somebody at home who’s curious to see what’s going on with their water rate, could they attend the meeting? Do they have space to speak at them?
MARISA: Yes. The Public Utilities Commission is subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act because they’re a public body. So anytime they are engaging in an activity that they’re required to by state law, that activity has to be open to the public’s review. Sometimes if they’re having an open meeting and it’s just for purposes of deliberating and rendering a decision the public might not have an opportunity to speak, but in those cases when they post the agenda for the meeting they let you know what type of meeting it is. They’ll say an opportunity for public comment will be given, or the PUC will be deliberating and rendering a decision, no public comment will be given. And then physically the PUC is now open again post COVID shutdown.
When you go to the Public Utilities Commission, there’s a space for the public to sit. There are chairs that are behind the tables reserved for the attorneys. So it’s pretty comfortable in terms of there being enough space and enough room and the public is always welcome to attend all the hearings at the PUC. And they are, frankly, attended. There are always interested parties that are there either speaking in favor of, speaking against, taking notes. Sometimes there are journalists there covering matters if they’re of state-wide importance.
CLARICE: So if there’s nothing on TV and you’re feeling nosy or you’re just kind of curious, you could go to an open meeting. It’s a thing.
MARISA: Head on over to Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick, Rhode Island.
CLARICE: So you had talked about Public Utilities Commission and another department with carriers. Let’s go into that just a little bit.
[0:12:48] MARISA: Sure. That’s the other section of the Public Utilities Commission known as the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers. People generally refer to them as the division. It’s the commission and the division. But the division is a separate entity that deals with rates, tariffs, tolls, and the reasonableness of facilities and accommodations of common carriers so – excuse me – over the state’s public roadways. So they deal with kind of the areas that the Public Utilities Commission doesn’t, the more regulated public roadway matters. They are also in attendance at every Public Utilities Commission proceeding. They’re what’s known as an indispensable party. So any time you go to the Public Utilities Commission at a hearing, you’ll see someone from the division who is representing them in attendance.
CLARICE: So is the division always involved with the commission, but the commission may not always affect the division?
MARISA: The commission affects the division in the sense that they have to enforce the directives of the PUC, but they don’t attend division meetings necessarily.
CLARICE: I have to be honest, I didn’t know that. After all this time with all of these [inaudible] this makes sense now.
MARISA: You are welcome.
CLARICE: I know procedurally I’m supposed to mail things to this person and this person and now I understand why. So, you know, if our listeners already knew this, good for them, but I learned something new today.
MARISA: That’s the takeaway.
CLARICE: That is the takeaway. Is there anything else that’s important to know about the Public Utilities Commission, or?
MARISA: They have a really great user-friendly website, so if you did want to learn more about what is currently being decided before the PUC just type in RIPUC into Google and check out their website. You can look at all the dockets and the materials that have been filed. It’s self-explanatory and they do a great job of making sure that materials are uploaded in a timely fashion.
CLARICE: And on our website we do have a blog post about the PUC, so you could always refresh yourself.
MARISA: Yeah. Check that out, too.
CLARICE: Read our blog and then head over and see the site. And also if you have any topics, comments, things you’d want us to talk about, feel free to send them over to Help@DesautelESQ.com. All right. Thank you, everybody.
MARISA: Thank you.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Environmentally Speaking. If you’re in need of an environmental attorney, we are here to help. Call us at 401-477-0023 or visit our website at www.DesautelLaw.com. That’s www.DesautelLaw.com.