Critics question Lesser’s Public Service appointment

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(Host) The state office that represents utility customers has hired a former utility consultant as its planning director. The appointment has drawn criticism by some who say the Department of Public Service has become too close to the industry it regulates.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The director of planning at the Department of Public Service is one of the most important jobs in the agency that advocates for ratepayers. The planning director serves as an expert witness in rate cases – and often provides testimony to challenge the utility’s arguments.

Public Service Commissioner David O’ Brien recently dismissed the longtime planning director, William Steinhurst. On Wednesday, O’Brien announced the appointment of economist Jonathan Lesser as Steinhurt’s replacement. O’Brien says Lesser was the most qualified person for the job.

(O’Brien) “He has excellent credentials, both in his educational background and his career, which has been both in regulation with the state of Washington, and with the private sector working for a utility and as a private consultant.”

(Dillon) Lesser, who lives in Williston, has a PhD in economics and most recently worked as an expert witness for the Entergy nuclear corporation. He testified that Entergy’s plan to boost the power output at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant will be good for the state and the region.

Lesser also worked for Green Mountain Power in the 1990s and has been a critic of the state’s energy conservation programs. Mark Sinclair of the Conservation Law Foundation says he’s concerned that Lesser’s appointment will mean the Douglas administration will not be a tough watchdog on Vermont utilities.

(Sinclair) “I think the appointment of Jonathan Lesser will mean the Department will be less likely to watch out for the public interest and more likely to defer to the desires of the utilities. I also believe it’s a sign that the Douglas administration is not really serious about making investments in energy efficiency and in promoting a renewable energy future for Vermont.”

(Dillon) The appointment also drew fire from Senator Peter Welch, a Windsor County Democrat and the Senate president pro tempore. But O’Brien says utilities should be worried now that Lesser is on the job.

(O’Brien) “I would think if you’re going to regulate utilities and keep them honest, who better to have on your staff to help you do that than someone that’s been part of a utility from a management perspective? In part I would be nervous if I were the utilities in that sense.”

(Dillon) O’Brien also says Lessser won’t work on the Yankee case because of his previous work for the nuclear company.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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