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Candidates say education on PSC top priority

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Alabama’s Public Service Commission, with its complex utility rate schedules and adjustments, can sometimes come off like a mysterious secret society, closed off to the public by its technical and bureaucratic nature.

But with this winter’s scrutiny over skyrocketing natural gas rates and current concerns about power rates heading into the summer, consumers are looking for answers and accountability.

Increased attention

The increased attention is why candidates for Place 2 in the June 6 primaries say they’re making it a priority to educate consumers about the commission and are advocating making meetings more accessible.

Varied backgrounds

Five candidates with varied backgrounds are vying for the Place 2 seat being vacated by George Wallace Jr., who’s running for lieutenant governor. Three are running in the Republican primary: Former state Sen. John Amari of Trussville, former state Rep. Perry Hooper of Montgomery and former PSC staffer Jack Hornady of Montgomery. And two are running in the Democratic primary: Debbie Murphree of Prattville and former state auditor Susan Parker of Rogersville.

It’s time to put the “public” back into the Alabama Public Service Commission, Hooper says.

“I’ve been traveling the state for nine months and when I ask for a show of hands . . . no one knows where the PSC meets or what they do, but they are concerned about their heating bills and why they’ve gone up,” he said. Hooper and others in the race are calling for traveling PSC meetings, similar to “road shows” the Alabama Supreme Court has done for several years.

“We need to take the PSC meetings out of the ninth floor of the RSA building and have meetings in Eufaula, Mobile, Gadsden or Tuscaloosa, just to name a few,” he said.

Hornady, who spent 18 years on the PSC staff, said he, too, has been met with confusion from consumers on the campaign trail.

“I kind of get the idea that the people are not charged up at this point. So many don’t know exactly what the PSC does and that sort of thing,” he said.

The Montgomery Republican was among the first to suggest holding PSC meetings throughout the state. He advocates having commission representatives at city meetings throughout Alabama to provide a direct and more personal link to the PSC, which regulates public utilities — holding them to fair rates while allowing them enough room to be profitable.

Gain public trust

Amari, who served 20 years in the Legislature, said the PSC has to work to gain back public trust and show it’s not at the beck and call of utilities.

The Trussville Republican who fought several battles with the Birmingham Water Works Board said he decided to make a Place 2 bid after legislation was introduced to bring the board under the PSC’s control.

“The rate payer must believe or trust that the members of the commission have character, integrity, judgment and that they’ll be fair. That’s the first thing because if they lose confidence there, they won’t accept the decision,” said Amari, who’s also a lawyer. “What’s really lacking in our politics is more citizen participation. We should encourage them, give them the opportunity, and hopefully they will become more involved.”

The fact that some see Wallace as a consumer advocate of sorts adds another component to the Place 2 race because Wallace’s successor might be expected to pick up where he left off, said Parker, who was the Democratic Party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2002.

“At this time with the high natural gas prices and with Exxon Mobile and Shell Oil making record profits of any company at any time. . . . The consumers are hurting and they are in dire straits. It’s a hot-button issue,” she said.

Natural gas rates in Alabama shot up by about 37 percent after the October start of the 2005-06 winter season, largely because of damage caused by the Gulf hurricanes last fall, and the U.S. Department of Energy ranked Alabama’s residential natural gas prices as ninth highest in the nation in 2004.

Repeated calls

Wallace made repeated calls for an official investigation into the high rates and turned to Attorney General Troy King for help after Wallace failed to gain a majority vote from Sullivan and Cook for further PSC action.

King thought the matter better suited for the commission and refused to get involved.

Murphree says she doesn’t blame the attorney general.

“I agree (with King). I think most of that stuff can be settled within the commission and they just have to do more research before they vote,” Murphree said, adding that her years dealing in antiques will help her in working with commissioners.

‘More homework’

“I’ve been negotiating for many, many years and I can do it again. But it’s not just one remedy for everything. Everything is going to take a little bit more homework,” she said.

But Murphree said she will take on Wallace’s fight.

“I know exactly that I would be (like Wallace) because I’m definitely for the consumer and not for big business,” she said. “I think it has to be a happy medium reached between the consumers and the companies. You go around tallying profits, outrageous profits . . . you do not even want to talk to the consumer. They’re outraged right now.”

There will not be a Place 3 primary because Democratic Commissioner Jan Cook has no opponent in her party. Her Republican challenger, John Rice, also is unopposed in the GOP primary.

The third member of the commission, PSC President Jim Sullivan, still has two years left in his four-year term.

Who are the candidates?

Jack Hornady

Political party: Republican

Date of birth: Nov. 3, 1928 (77)

Hometown: Montgomery

Education: Attended Auburn University, studied industrial management.

Professional background: Worked on the PSC staff before retiring as director of consumer services after 18 years. Has had a private consulting practice and done arbitration work since retiring.

Political background: Member of the State Democratic Executive Committee for two terms, became a Republican in the late 1960s. Ran for the state Legislature in 1974.

Susan Parker

Political party: Democrat

Date of birth: Sept. 30, 1955 (50)

Hometown: Grew up in Eva in Morgan County; now lives in Rogersville.

Education: Bachelor's degree from Athens State College; master's degree from University of Alabama at Birmingham; doctorate in administration in higher education from The University of Alabama.

Professional background: Worked for Calhoun Community College from 1972-88, including serving as assistant dean of administrative services and admissions clerk; worked for Athens State College from 1988-96, serving as assistant to the president for external affairs and chief development officer; served as president of Parker Plus, a consulting company that works with nonprofit organizations, beginning in 1996; worked with Greater Birmingham Ministries on pursuing a new state constitution.

Political background: Worked in campaigns of her husband, former state Rep. Paul Parker, before being elected state auditor in 1998 in her first bid for public office; won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2002, but lost the general election to Republican incumbent Jeff Sessions.

Perry Hooper Jr.

Political party: Republican

Date of birth: Sept. 5, 1954 (53)

Hometown: Montgomery

Education: Bachelor's degree from Auburn University; law degree from Jones Law School in Montgomery.

Professional background: Vice President of Palomar Insurance Corp. since 1991.

Political background: Served in the Alabama House of Representatives from 1983 to 1992. Son of former Chief Justice Perry Hooper Sr.

Debbie Murphree

Political party: Democrat

Date of birth: March 28, 1959 (47)

Hometown: Prattville

Education: Attended Lord Fairfax Community College in Virginia.

Professional background: Antiques dealer for 15 years, also taught piano lessons.

Political background: Ran for sheriff of Autauga County in 2002 and for the Autauga County Commission in 2004. This is her first statewide campaign.

John Amari

Political party: Republican

Date of birth: Aug. 7, 1948 (57)

Hometown: Grew up in Roebuck; now lives in Trussville.

Education: Bachelor's degree from University of Montevallo; law degree from Samford University's Cumberland School of Law.

Professional background: Lawyer in Jefferson County.

Political background: Elected to Alabama House in 1978; elected to Alabama Senate in 1982, 1983, 1986, 1990 and 1994; ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1998; ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2002.

— The Associated Press

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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