Swimming Upstream

This month, Angela Elizabeth Speir will finish her yearlong stint as head of the Georgia Public Service Commission. As the first woman chairman in the PSC’s 127-year history, she has put her signature on the office – not so much because she is of a different gender but because she is of a different age and attitude.

Halfway through a six-year term on the commission that regulates the state’s utilities, this Gwinnett County Republican is 38 and looks younger, with long, curly dark hair and plenty of polish. As a newcomer, she encountered patronizing comments about her looks, age and gender. She recalls that old-timers around the office patted her shoulder and said, “You’ve really been thrown into the deep end of the pool.” Speir’s reply: “Yes, I have. But the really great thing is, I know how to swim.”

This is a woman who took on an unsuccessful but ambitious campaign for state senate at the age of 24. She earned a biology degree from Agnes Scott College before her 20th birthday. She worked for the United Methodist Children’s Home medical complex and for an employment agency, then started her own staffing service before going up against former public service commissioner and longtime state legislator Bubba McDonald. She raised less than $4,000 against McDonald’s $200,000. She couldn’t afford advertising, but she knocked on doors and traveled the state campaigning.

She is fond of saying that no one gave her the chance of “a snowball in the devil’s house.” This polite, self-described “Southern Christian lady” wears her innocence like the cross pendant around her neck. But she hasn’t shied away from conflict. She’s been on the losing end of many 3-2 votes – and some 4-1s – usually against rate increases. She hasn’t voted for one yet, despite having presided over several.

She has firmly refused to engage in the behind the scenes political negotiation that is the PSC’s hallmark – and which Speir believes should be illegal, as it is for the courts. She says she is so frugal with the public’s money that she refuses to drive a state car. She takes pride in her well-worn office equipment – from her collection of old pens to the sunken chairs that belonged to a now deceased former commissioner who previously occupied her second floor quarters in the Justice Building near the Capitol.

After a two and a half hour interview in her office recently, this reporter respectfully requests reconsideration of the chairs, but thanks her for the use of her out of production blue ink medium point Paper Mate Flexgrip. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Georgia Trend: Why did you want to be a public service commissioner?

Speir: I knew that I could serve and make a difference. I’ve always been very service minded in every aspect of my life in wanting make a difference and help people. The job that we do impacts Georgians’ lives. The decisions that we make impact your family. They impact businesses both small and large. Every time someone turns on a light, sets their thermostat or picks up their telephone, that decision has been impacted by the public service commission. It is a very important role in Georgia government. Part of my platform when I was running was making people aware of the impact the commission has on their daily lives and their family and their pocketbook. I know it might sound hokey but I just can’t think of a better way to say it. It is heartfelt. I love this state. I love the people of this state. To have an opportunity to serve and make a difference in the lives of the people of Georgia is a tremendous blessing and honor. I got out there and I worked very hard and I’m very blessed to be here. I’ll never take it for granted.

GT: Has this been a difficult job to master?

Speir: It is a very tough job. It’s a massive amount of information to disseminate in a short time. And it’s very important to Georgia. You have to make decisions based on fact, on the law and on the record. That is why I oppose behind the scenes lobbying. Decisions should be made based on the record. Everything should be out in the open. That way, all of the parties, anyone with an interest, has an opportunity to hear the information and perhaps offer a different point of view. That is vital to this process. We’re very much judge and jury in this. You would not let an attorney in a case share information with one juror and not with another. It needs to be handled in a very open format. I think sunshine is the best disinfectant. So, let the sun shine. Put the skunk on the table so we can all see it for what it is.

GT: It sounds like you’re swimming against the tide on the PSC. Aren’t you and Commissioner Robert Baker the only ones who do not engage in ex-parte communications?

Speir: That is correct. Decisions should be made based on the facts on the record – not conversations that were held in New York City or in an office behind closed doors or over dinner. It needs to be on record so that everyone has an opportunity to hear it and respond to it. I’m certainly very open to meeting with people. Any constituent is welcome in my office. But I will not tolerate sharing of information that is relevant to a pending case off the record.

GT: How has that been received on the commission?

Speir: There’s been very open conflict during our administration sessions. One of the commissioners was supporting higher return on equity for Georgia Power based on conversations he had with officials in New York. My response to him was that if the analyst in New York had information relevant to the case, then he should have put himself on a plane and come to Atlanta and stated that on the record. Ultimately, each commissioner makes his own decision about how he receives information and conducts business and that’s how it is. I’ve chosen a position of integrity because that’s my goal each day – to serve with courage, strength and integrity. To me, that’s the above board honest ethical approach to this job. I study those facts. I’m known for having been studious before I came in, and for studying all the technical minutiae relevant to the job. I have my code books, my rule books, my Roberts Rules of Order. I carry them all around.

GT: You have called this past year the busiest in the history of the PSC. Why is that?

Speir: It’s because of the number of dockets that have been on our agenda this year. And also the number of very high profile cases: Georgia Power, Atlanta Gas Light, Savannah Electric.

GT: What are some of the challenges of the job?

Speir: The most challenging aspect of this job is feeling in my heart that I’ve done all the hard work that goes into a decision – feeling that I have arrived at what is the right decision, the best decision for our state honestly, fighting for that, putting on my armor, going onto the bench and fighting for the people of Georgia – and being on the losing side of the vote.

GT: And you’ve had that experience a few times?

Speir: Quite a few times. I’ve not voted for a rate increase during my tenure. If a rate increase were justified, I’d vote for it. That’s my job.

GT: You have voted against every rate increase?

Speir: When we had the Georgia Power case, I felt there should be a lower return on equity than what was ultimately approved. The argument used for approving it, at least by one commissioner, was those off the record discussions. With the Atlanta Gas Light Company case, we voted. We made a decision. We would have reduced rates. The company asked that it be reconsidered. Eventually, a stipulation was approved that changed the outcome. One of the things that was changed was replacement of old gas lines from 10 years to 15 years. I’m very concerned about the safety. It’s disappointing. I work as hard as anyone in this position ever has. And I prayerfully consider my decisions. There are people who have to make a decision about what they are going to eat or whether they are going to take their medicine twice a day as prescribed based on the amount of their utility bill. I voted against the Savannah Electric case. I was the only commissioner to do so. Again, it was because of the return on equity. There were other factors. But we had expert witness testimony that stipulated a lower ROE.

GT: Sometimes you’re the only dissenting vote?

Speir: Occasionally I am. Usually it’s a 3-2 split with me and Commissioner Baker dissenting. At first people would say, “Well, she’s decided to vote with Commissioner Baker,” as though I couldn’t possibly arrive at a decision on my own, couldn’t possibly have studied the issue and decided. I’m very driven and focused. And I’m humble and have a good sense of humor. It’s like President Bush said after his first election: “They misunderestimated me.” When I laugh, it’s because I know that I’m on my path. I’m strong in my convictions. I know who I am. I’m here to work. I don’t falter. I serve the Lord first. And I serve the people of Georgia second. When you’re strong in your personal foundation, then you draw upon that. There is a sense of strength in that. And you just go. You go, girl.

GT: How can the PSC address the issue of global warming and encourage cleaner sources of energy?

Speir: That’s a real concern. We have sulfur dioxide, mercury, lead. Thus, we have the Clean Air Act. We see the companies coming back in asking for more money for the scrubbers and things to try to implement the Clean Air Act.

GT: So, might that be a rate increase you would vote for?

Speir: I look at it like Lady Justice. I put the facts on the scale. It’s going to tilt one way or the other. If it’s justified, I’ll vote for it.

GT: What can the PSC do to offset increased fuel prices?

Speir: All roads lead to fuel. So you have companies coming back for increased rates because of higher fuel costs. The increased cost of natural gas is affecting not only our natural gas bills, but also our electric bills. We definitely need to look at conserving.

GT: How can you encourage the development of renewable energy sources?

Speir: I was a supporter of the Green Energy Program, where customers can opt to pay a premium for power from renewable sources.

GT: What about nuclear power – which is now being talked about by some as a “green” energy source?

Speir: Some environmentalists are very supportive of nuclear energy because there’s no emission. It’s a very clean source. Certainly, there are safety concerns. The first question is, is there a need. Second, we have to do a cost benefit analysis. With a nuclear plant, the upfront cost is very large. But with generation, nuclear is cheaper. There is a savings in the long haul in the kilowatt hour cost. Then, when you look at fuel price increases, it could become more attractive. Safety is a concern, obviously. And then, one of the biggest concerns is the waste – the disposal of the waste. Where is that going? Currently, Georgia has paid $800 million to have waste removed from our state and taken to Yucca Mountain to the repository, but Yucca Mountain is not open for business.

GT: What are your future career plans?

Speir: I’m 38 and I love this job. Every day I come to work and sit on I-85 with my fellow constituents. I look around and I see a real cross section of Georgians. I think, I’m going to work today and I’m going to do a jam up job for you and your family. I get a little miffed when they don’t let me over. I think, it’s 8:45 a.m. If I’m not there to cast my vote, you may not get the best deal. A lot of times I’m here until 7 in the evening.

GT: Do you plan to run again in 2008?

Speir: I do plan to run again. I’m enjoying what I’m doing.

Categories: Features, People