By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – Twin bills before the Mississippi Legislature aim to strip the Public Service Commission of its powers to investigate public utilities.
One, Senate Bill 2322, may be considered today by a committee chaired by Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo.
Brandon Presley, Northern District commissioner, said the legislation seeks to prevent the PSC from correcting problems like those which arose in 2011 within the North Lee County Water Association.
“This bill is a misguided attempt to stop us from doing our job to protect the public,” said Presley of Nettleton. “Monopoly corporations should not be left to their own devices … without any competition.”
The bills seek to amend state law to deny the PSC subpoena powers and jurisdiction over “the governance, management and internal affairs of public utilities.”
State law gives the PSC authority over intrastate business and property of public utilities, but the amendment would strip its ability to investigate or “interfere” with how they are managed.
House Bill 1135 is identical to the Senate bill and referred to the House Public Utilities Committee chaired by Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce.
The bills’ authors are Sen. Perry Lee, R-Mendenhall, and Rep. Nolan Mettetal, R-Sardis.
None of the legislators responded to Daily Journal requests to comment about the bills or their origins.
In the fall of 2011, the PSC stepped into the operations of North Lee County Water Association after employee allegations of fraud.
Ultimately, as the PSC delved into the association’s minutes and procedures, North Lee’s leadership was changed and new officials installed to run the large utility.
Its former executive director, Dan Durham, was indicted and pleaded guilty to lying about federal water quality reports. He has yet to be sentenced.
Ken Clemons, now president of North Lee’s board, said Tuesday he was surprised to hear about the legislation.
“Nothing would have ever changed at North Lee without the Public Service Commission,” Clemons said, expressing his concerns about the bills.
He recently reported improved operations and expansive plans to upgrade the water system.
“If the PSC hadn’t come in,” he noted, “the Health Department would have had to shut us down in another two or three years.”
Water safety never was an issue, Clemons explained a few months ago after Durham’s guilty plea. Rather, it was concerns about the system’s age and capacity to serve its customers.