Earlier this week, a report from VPR raised new questions about whether a top government official used his authority to soften internal criticism of his own department. On Thursday afternoon, a Senate committee asked Commissioner of Public Service Chris Recchia to address the story. And Recchia says he engaged in no willful manipulation of the document.
Last year, lawmakers directed the Department of Public Service to perform a so-called self-assessment. The idea was to find out whether the department is doing an adequate job advocating for the best interests of ratepayers.
An investigation by VPR’s Taylor Dobbs showed that early drafts of the self-assessment included numerous recommendations by staff to improve the department’s public-advocacy mission. Those recommendations included ways to insulate public-advocacy operations from staff members who serve at the pleasure of the governor. Doing so, the recommendations suggested, might avoid undue influence on the public advocate by various political interests.
But many of those recommendations failed to make it into the final version of the report, and Dobbs' story shows Recchia had a hand in the decision to remove them.
In testimony before the Senate Committee on Finance on Thursday, Recchia said he takes sole responsibility for the contents of the report.
“However I also make no apologies for the process used, the resulting content or the recommendations ultimately presented from me to you in this final report, as I believe they faithfully and self-critically fulfill your request of me,” Recchia said.
Recchia says he takes issues with the VPR report.
“I think that it came into the story with a particular bias and there was lots of other evidence that could be used to paint a completely different picture, which is the one I tried to paint today,” Recchia said.
Recchia says the recommendations that appeared in early versions of the report reflected one stage of an iterative process that sought to give staff broad leeway in their considerations.
He says the staff ultimately concluded that there was insufficient evidence to show that the alternative structures would be an improvement over the current model. And he says the decision to remove many of them from the final draft was the result of robust internal deliberations, not of an iron fist.
“This is not a unilateral decision on my part,” Recchia told the committee. “This was an open, honest discussion with other staff and there isn’t one recommendation that’s in here that wasn’t supported by a majority of most of the people, or that was agreed to by all, frankly, involved.”
Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, says the report sparked a flurry of concerned contact from constituents.
“Obviously, it feeds perceptions that many people have that the department is oriented toward doing things the way they’ve always done them,” Ashe said.
Ashe says that, after hearing the testimony on Thursday, he’s satisfied with the integrity of the department’s process in drafting the report.
“I take the commissioner at his word, that he said that some of those recommendations were put in as responses to public concerns, but not necessarily arguing that that was the prevailing thinking of the department at the time they were drafted,” Ashe said.
Ashe, however, says he’s glad the early drafts, released after a records request by VPR, have come to light.
“Some of the recommendations that were rejected I think we’ll take a look at,” Ashe says. “We’ll want to know why they were advocated for within the department and ultimately why the balance of thinking was that they should be rejected.”
Chittenden Sen. Ginny Lyons offered a similar view.
“I don’t think there was an attempt to hide information,” Lyons says. “We also know that we’ve got some work to do in public advocacy within the department, and I think that this committee understands that. We need to fix some of the problems that have been identified through this process”
Dobbs’ story shows that content of the report changed substantively when primary oversight of the document was transferred from staff members to the commissioner.
In a Jan. 11 email from Director of Public Advocacy Geoff Commons to department staffer Wayne Jortner, who had been the lead on the report up until that point, Commons said that “Chris [Recchia] is essentially taking it over, which is fine with me.”
Recchia says he did not “take over” the process, and that it was a “group effort” among department staff.
Recchia says that while recommendations for alternate public-advocacy structures were deleted from the final report, he says the final draft notes in the executive summary that “some entities would like the department to take positions that are designed solely to reduce rates, without regard to the energy and telecommunication policies set by the state.”
Recchia says the report goes on to say that “we believe that such a dramatic shift in how the department functions if desired after consideration of this report, would be best accomplished through statutory change.”
But the department’s failure to include recommendations from its own staff members to delink public advocacy from political influence, according to one ratepayer advocate, served to squelch what could have been a useful debate over the merits of alternate regulatory structures.
“It is clear that the earlier drafts tried to address some of the issues that AARP has long pointed out are issues with how they function as a department and how they represent ratepayers or don’t,” says Philene Taormina, director of advocacy at AARP Vermont. “And had those recommendations been made public, I think we could have a more robust conversation about what changes might be needed in Vermont to make it as effective as other ratepayer advocates’ offices.”