Lights Out? | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Lights Out? 

Utilities hated him. Ratepayers loved him. The governor fired him. But the battle over Roger Ball and the Committee of Consumer Services ain’t over yet.

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Bev White stood, scribbled notes in hand, as she surveyed the stuffy little meeting room, dribbling out the audience it couldn’t hold.

“You don’t have a smaller room?” she asked in her usual acerbic way. White, a Corrections officer, former legislator and a Democrat, no longer plays well with others. She was about to defend someone else who doesn’t.

The night before, she’d made up her mind that she wouldn’t be cut off, and she wouldn’t sit down. She never did like it when some senator from Provo would cut women off in mid-sentence, dinging some bell, looking at his stopwatch, and then would take the rest of the time to make his own case. Twenty years of that kind of treatment in the Legislature taught her to take the floor.

It’s like a rerun, she says. “Somewhere on Capitol Hill, there is this itch to get rid of the Committee of Consumer Services,” she said, still standing. “I resent it, as a legislator who helped sponsor this bill for the protection of people.”

But this is not about the people. It is about politics—or political entitlement. It is about Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. putting his personal stamp on state government like few governors before—and being dumbfounded by the backlash.

The latest and most heated has been over the firing of Roger Ball, heretofore an almost invisible Englishman to a public that doesn’t understand or involve itself in utility regulation. Why would they when Ball, described tediously as a “pit bull,” was there to advocate for them as administrative secretary to the Committee of Consumer Services.

But neither Ball nor Huntsman’s aversion to pit bulls is the issue here. Ball has become a metaphor for the committee’s potential loss of independence.

“Is it about Roger Ball, private citizen, who’s 5-foot-11 inches, wears glasses, is balding and speaks with a strange accent?” asks Ball, rhetorically. If that were so, then his firing would be nothing more than a comma in the Huntsman book of governmental management.

You may recall the outcry when Huntsman’s steroidal new staff unceremoniously booted 33 employees of the Department of Community and Economic Development. There was no easing out of the old guard, but there was no saber-rattling, either. Despite the callousness of the terminations, it was pretty well understood that administrations can remake the face of government.

But the Committee of Consumer Services is different, even in ambiguity. Created in 1977, the CCS was meant to represent “residential, small commercial and agricultural consumers of natural gas, electric and telephone service before the Utah Public Service Commission.” And it was meant to do that without political interference.

“This committee was absolutely nonpolitical,” says White. “At first, we wanted to put it under the governor’s office, but no, we didn’t want it to look that political and the governor [Scott Matheson Sr. had just taken office] said he didn’t want it there, either. We didn’t want it in the attorney general’s office, and he [Robert B. Hansen, state attorney general at the time] didn’t want it there, although they did decide to furnish an attorney.

“It needed to be floated—close to Public Utilities division but not under them.”

So, float it did. But without an anchor, the committee was often a target for takeover. Not because it did a bad job, but maybe just because. It’s estimated that the committee has saved consumers some $1 billion in utility costs over its 28 years of operation. We’re talking electric, gas and telephone bills. This is a track record that has put the committee squarely in the sights of the utilities.

“Is there anyone who thinks that the events of the last two weeks are not political?” asks Steve Harmsen, a former Salt Lake County councilman who turned up at the committee hearing. “Utility companies are the most powerful political entities in the state, and neither the utilities nor the politicians like the committee.”

University of Utah law professor John Flynn has witnessed the power struggles. “There’s been a long battle going on between utilities and the committee, with the utilities trying to get rid of the committee and the person in charge,” he says.

And these utilities don’t like to lose. In 2003, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that Questar could not collect rates from its customers so it could build a plant in Carbon County to take carbon dioxide out of its gas. The ruling came after the committee fought not only the gas company, but the Public Service Commission, which sided with Questar.

“US West (now Qwest) tried to get a rate design to let them keep half of what they earned over and above the rate of return,” says Flynn, who’s long been involved in utility issues. “That was unreasonable and they lost that. Then, PacifiCorp had its request for a rate increase cut in half.”

In other words, things just weren’t going well for the utilities, which had kind of gotten used to feeling like monopolies. And so, in keeping with tradition, they’ve gone about trying to decimate the committee. Or so it seems.

These are the theories that craze the Huntsman administration. But conspiracies will be addressed later. First the facts.

Tim Funk has been stirring things up since the beginning. Funk, a community activist, worked with the sponsor, then-Rep. Stephen Holbrook, on language from a model consumer advocate bill, courtesy of the National Consumer Law Center. He later worked for the committee on community outreach.

It seemed important to give consumers a voice, particularly in utilities issues which affect the poor disproportionately. The average consumer, too, has it hard. Residential customers, for example, are paying about 7.45 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity while large industrial customers are paying about 3.6 cents.

For 15 years, the committee worked side by side with the utilities, under the guidance of Joe Ingles, who was then executive director.

That changed in 1993, when the new Commerce director, Connie White, fired Ingles. She wanted to make the change, she said then. Because she could.

“They changed all these things around and put Public Utilities under the Commerce Department, but not us,” says White, referring to the committee. By then, having left the Legislature, she was serving on the CCS herself. “This guy in the Commerce Department was very demanding and wanted to take us over, but we didn’t want him to suck us up.”

The Ingles firing was a catalyst of sorts. Community groups pleaded with then Gov. Mike Leavitt to reconsider. Ingles stayed on for three months until White appointed Sandy Mooy, who’d worked with the attorney general’s office. And while the committee OK’d the appointment, they questioned White’s authority in writing.

“Questions remain about the statutory authority of the Department of Commerce to unilaterally terminate the committee’s administrative secretary,” they wrote.

The committee was clearly troubled. This time, there was talk of a lawsuit. When Chairman Leland Hogan asked the attorney general’s office to help, Assistant Attorney General John Clark answered that Jan Graham, would not provide an attorney to challenge the governor, but he did suggest that the committee could hire its own attorney.

Clark hearkened back to a 1985 opinion the Attorney general informally issued on the same question, and he advised getting the law clarified. The opinion concluded that the Commerce director could indeed fire the head of the Consumer Services Committee, but that it didn’t address “the tension between the purported legislative mandate of independence for the Committee of Consumer Services contrasted with the apparent authority of the Department of Commerce to terminate its Administrative Secretary without the advice or consent of the Committee.”

Tension might be too mild a term for what has been going on.

In 1997, Mooy moved to the PSC as its counsel, and Leavitt nominated Lorena Riffo to the CCS. More uproar.

“All of a sudden when Sandy {Mooy] left, they sent us that lady health professional, and she wasn’t qualified to be director,” Bev White says. But she was a personal appointee of Leavitt’s—the director of the Office of Hispanic Affairs.

Riffo ultimately withdrew and the committee began the process of finding candidates.

Roger Ball jumped into the fray almost innocently. He saw the job advertised.

By nature, Ball is not what you’d call a risk-taker. In fact, he was a civil servant for 20 years. A bookish Brit, he received what the Leavitt administration called “the equivalent of a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering and a master’s degree in business administration.” He worked for British Telecom, a government-owned, self-regulated monopoly, which was essentially privatized in late 1984.

Ball started out as an engineer and later oversaw total quality management and standards for the company. He did just about everything but marketing. When he joined CCS, he’d been consulting with public and private entities on organizational development.

“I never claimed to have political or lobbying skills,” says Ball. “I’m not a political appointee. I was absolutely nobody’s relative or acquaintance.”

The committee interviewed several candidates, and came up with a list of three to send to Leavitt, says Bev White. He asked the committee to prioritize them, and White says they responded that Ball was their No. 1 choice.

For the next eight years, Ball worked with the six-member committee, doing what he thought his job description dictated. Since 2000, however, much of the emphasis was redirected to preserving the committee itself.

Almost every legislative session has seen bills aimed at restructuring the committee. Most infamous was HB320, not to be confused with its sequel, HB320 II. The first bill, written and shepherded by Questar, was passed, signed by the governor and then repealed. It would have eliminated the pesky CCS.

The bill itself had questionable merit, but something else kept it sticking in the public’s eye. Not only did Questar have a significant role in the bill, but Leavitt’s father, Dixie, sat on the board and owned a whole lot of stock.

“This takes everyone’s attention away from what the Committee of Consumer Services is for,” says Ball. “The committee should be free to adopt positions and represent consumer interests. It’s a huge interruption and a huge political embarrassment.”

Maybe in retaliation or maybe because it was such a good idea, the Legislature did pass a bill that moved the committee to lesser digs, a couple of floors away from the PSC.

Life went on, and Leavitt moved on to Washington. Utah experienced its first real gubernatorial race in more than a decade. Interest groups and activists were trying to get a feel for the candidates, Huntsman and Scott Matheson Jr.

Claire Geddes was one of them. As she walked into the expansive foyer of the Huntsman corporate offices, Geddes was looking to be impressed, and that’s no easy job. Not even for one of the richest men in the world. Let’s just say that Geddes is as well-known for her attitude as she is for her advocacies.

Huntsman had invited her for a little tête-à-tête about some of her issues—consumer stuff and radioactive wastes. Geddes had already had to cancel one meeting with Huntsman to care for her husband, who has Parkinson’s disease.

Huntsman didn’t miss a beat. He sat down next to her and asked her how her husband was. What would they do without her on Capitol Hill? Utah was so lucky. This nuclear-waste issue is pretty discouraging, isn’t it, and oh yes, he intends to do some substantive campaign reform.

“He put Orrin Hatch to shame,” says Geddes, referring to Utah’s senior and most urbane senator. “I’ve never met anyone so charming—never in my career. Here’s a running candidate telling me I was appreciated. I was so impressed. ... He was concerned about everything going on and listened to my concerns about utility issues. He said I would always have an open door to him. The whole meeting was that way.”

That was a year ago. Not long after the election, Geddes went back to Huntsman, this time with Jason Groenwold of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL), to ask Huntsman to sign an executive order banning some classes of nuclear wastes in Utah.

While Huntsman would eventually sign a bill banning the waste, he was cool to Groenwold and Geddes then, and apparently didn’t like all the media attention. But when Geddes brought up the Committee of Consumer Services, Huntsman’s mood lightened.

“He was more receptive and wanted to talk about it,” Geddes says. “He saw how concerned I was and said he understood.” She went through the whole Leavitt scenario, and told Huntsman how concerned she was about the committee’s independence.

“He even commented about his business and how his brother was upset with [President] Bush about not controlling natural gas prices. ... He said he would really like to sit down and talk with me at length, that this was an issue he’d like to talk about.”

The next thing she heard was on March 9, when Ball was fired and given 20 minutes to get out.

“This was supposed to be such a consumer-friendly government; I’ve never seen such a Jekyll and Hyde,” Geddes says.

Huntsman, however, has deferred to his staff, and his transition team, for the deep cleaning Commerce has taken. That’s the department now run by Russell Skousen, formerly of Salt Lake County Council fame.

Skousen is a serious, steely-eyed little Republican who gained the admiration of Democrats on the council for his ability to cut through partisan issues. He has not been happy with the turn of events at Commerce.

“Back during the campaign, one of the central platforms for Gov. Huntsman was this idea that we really hadn’t had a change in state government for 12 years—there’d been no real transition for 12 years, and transition really entails change, a fresh set of eyes, people and ideas,” Skousen says.

The team pretty much eliminated all the at-will positions, and concluded that it would be good to make a change at the CCS, as well. Skousen, what with his employment law background, won’t give reasons for the deck clearing. Too much risk, he says. But he sure appreciates the job Ball did.

“We believe a different type of person in that position could help to improve the committee and its mission,” said Skousen, being coy. After all, news reports had already quoted a member of the governor’s transition team as saying Ball was generally disliked for his autocratic style.

“It’s no secret, year after year there has been activity on Capitol Hill to drastically alter the character of the committee,” says Skousen. “It was felt by getting someone like Leslie Reberg, who has a lot of connections with people from all along the political spectrum, and good relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle, that she could come in with sort of a fresh approach and help protect the committee against adverse legislation.”

“Fresh” is the administrative word used to describe Leslie Reberg, the second part of the equation.

Most recently a department head under former Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman, Reberg is a sassy, self-described political junkie who has worked for Democrats like Randy Horiuchi and the late Dave Watson in county government. And with Skousen’s support, she solidly joins the ranks of a few Democrats who are acceptable to the GOP nobility.

But the timing of her appointment was a little too in-your-face for the committee, which maintains that the law requires its concurrence on any such change.

Reberg, commonly called the “interim director,” was chatting up committee members and answering phones at the committee offices soon after Ball left. That came to an abrupt halt with the unanticipated public outcry.

“We were intending on having her act as interim director as well,” says Skousen, who was a little blindsided by the negative reaction. “She never really functioned as that; she was not on the state payroll and not really off the ground. In speaking with members of the committee and the attorney general’s office, we just felt like it would be less imposing on the committee to simply have Leslie informing herself on issues and speaking with staff members on a more casual basis.”

The committee, meanwhile, was foundering as it tried to stopper something like fission. While it was no use huffing about being out of the loop on Ball’s termination, the committee regrouped, called a public hearing and insisted that they be part of the process.

The hearing—the one Bev White attended—was supposed to address the process and whether the committee would take the matter to court. It soon turned into a free-for-all, with testimonials from Reberg’s friends, her colleagues and her 15-year-old daughter. Two people—one daughter, Kate—compared her to Eleanor Roosevelt. With connections like these, she might have been running for chair of the state Democratic Party.

In announcing her appointment, Skousen highlighted the fact that she had worked for US West (Qwest), and was instrumental in passing a controversial telecommunications bill. In contrast, Ted Smith, former Qwest vice president, showed up to dispel that very notion. Reberg, he said, had not played a central role in the consumer unfriendly legislation, but rather had worked on mundane matters like access to rights of way so phone lines can go through.

Whatever. Testifying before the committee, one man, Steve Gilbert, noted that it doesn’t matter what she did for Qwest or how fair she can be. “No one will ever believe that because of the fact that she worked for the utility in the past,” he said.

If it’s all about public perception, Chaffetz thinks the public ought to be outraged that Ball worked for British Telecom. Even though British Telecom has no dealings in Utah.

Reberg remained nonplussed if a bit rapid-fire throughout the hearing. While she doesn’t particularly like the limelight, she’s used to this kind of politics.

“I really like government,” she said later. “The things that people hate about government, I like. The whole architecture, getting 10 signatures, the executive, legislative, administrative, but also the public piece of it, how they all combine and have interplay together.

“I really enjoy how you think, if you move this thing, how does it work over here—like a big pinball game almost. Although I feel like a human pinball.”

But being a pinball wizard doesn’t qualify Reberg for the job, says Geddes, once again earning scorn from the administration. “Are they trying to say that if she tap dances and talks really fast, she can get things done?” Geddes asks.

Jason Chaffetz, Huntsman’s chief of staff, calls this a personal attack on Reberg. In fact, testimony, letters to the editor and tributes from friends often alluded to “attacks,” although it was unclear how dialogue about qualifications could be personal. Criticism addressed her professional and political background; praise pointed to Reberg’s political wit and her soccer-mom charm.

“It’s personal,” says Chaffetz. But he’s really not talking about Reberg. “When you imply Jon Huntsman is somehow conspiring with insiders to do this, that leads to the natural conclusion that there’s some tie to Leslie that’s somehow less than proper. ... To suggest that he has anything less than an arm’s-length relationship ... there’s no evidence that we’ve done anything other than be straightforward.”

Conspiracy is a harsh term, but this is Utah where friendship is akin to collusion. Chaffetz is just a little touchy when it comes to any implied slam of his boss.

“To be consumer advocate you have to have an independent point of view,” says Funk. “The know-nothings from the transition team probably had no more idea of the history.”

This past session, another HB320 raised its head, this time trying to eliminate the CCS in favor of a Ratepayer Advocate out of the attorney general’s office. Funk calls that a false start for the administration as critics tried to change the committee.

Last week, the committee voted against taking the matter to court. After all, the Legislature would probably just ride herd again. But they did issue a statement about “cooperating” with the governor on finding a new director.

In fact, the correct word should have been “collaborate,” according to committee members. Semantics continues to be a problem for the committee, which points to the law requiring “concurrence” on any appointment.

Skousen scowls at the notion. “That’s not the process set forth in statute—to have the committee come up with a group of names and submit them to the governor. In a way, it is reversing the process so you have essentially the committee appointing and the governor concurring,” he said.

Which means that Reberg is in this for the long haul.

“I told Claire that if I get concurred with, I’ll pull 320 off the table—it’s not good for the staff or the committee to have that hanging over their heads. I can do that. I’m very effective,” Reberg says.

And quite optimistic. Ball seems to think that the only long-term solution would be to re-create the committee as an independent agency. That, however, is unlikely.

“No matter what the regime has been, the committee has always sort of found its independent center,” says Funk, hopefully.

But the Huntsman administration is holding its breath in collective tantrum to get its way on this. It’s not enough to fire Ball, who still threatens to sue. Huntsman wants to put his personal seal on the entire Commerce Department. Maybe it’s a function of ego; maybe of industrial clout. Or maybe he just wants to be done with an obnoxious little man who short-circuits utility interests.

While the administration is digging in its heels, those surrounding the committee are collapsing. Geddes, caring for her ill husband, has less and less time to devote to consumer issues. Ball has had health issues since the contentious legislative session of 2000. And many of the committee members are feeling the stress.

“It’s certainly taken a physical and mental toll on everyone,” says committee member Betsy Wolf, the only dissenting vote in favor of taking the matter to court. So much for the dismissal issue. The hiring process is still playing out.

“Leavitt backed off when we had public hearing and we just went ahead and did our job as it was outlined to us,” says White. “Now we all wish we had Leavitt back.”

No such luck, as the Huntsman administration digs in, determined to make its mark. For now, all that’s certain is that the Committee of Consumer Services has no Ball.

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About The Author

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele

A City Weekly contributor since 1992, Katharine Biele is the informed voice behind our Hits & Misses column. When not writing, you can catch her working to empower voters and defend democracy alongside the League of Women Voters.

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