March 22, 2004 – Innovative Telephone customers are going to get their say before the Legislature if Sen. Louis Hill has his way — and if Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone does not.
The two majority bloc lawmakers agree that the public should have a public forum in which to air their complaints, but they disagree on what that forum should be.
Hill, a member of the Senate Government Operations Committee, wrote on March 17 to Malone, who chairs the body, asking him to call a hearing on phone customer complaints. Hill, who chairs the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee, said he has received multiple complaints about telephone service.
Malone publicly declined Hill's request on Monday. He wrote Hill and stated in a release that the Senate is not an appropriate venue for hearing telephone service complaints, because it has no jurisdiction over Innovative Telephone or any other private company. The Public Services Commission does have that jurisdiction, he said, and it is the body that should hear such complaints. Malone is one of two senators who hold non-voting seats on the commission.
Hill disagreed. "One way or another, I am going to ensure there is a hearing for the public to voice their concerns and issues regarding the telecommunications industry," he said on Monday. He said he would ask the PSC members to come to his hearing and answer some questions, as well.
Malone said in his letter to Hill and in the release that the lawmakers "do not have the statutory authority to require Innovative Telephone to do anything. Only the PSC has that power." He added: "Providing the PSC with adequate resources is how we as legislators can truly make a difference … with regard to improved telephone service."
Speaking by telephone Monday afternoon, Malone said that while he shares Hill's concerns, "I am not having a hearing … I've been advocating for better telephone service, but the Senate doesn't have the jurisdiction."
On March 19, after receiving Hill's March 17 letter, Malone wrote to Valencio Jackson, PSC chair, asking that the commission "convene public hearings on all three islands for the purpose of hearing the complaints, concerns and suggestions about substandard telephone service our citizens have been receiving."
By phone and in his letter to Hill, Malone said on Monday that he believes the PSC should conduct such hearings "at least three times annually." He noted that the most recent hearings took place last July, "when Innovative was seeking a rate increase," adding: "Since then, telephone service has not improved, and the community deserves to be heard about this matter and [to] be educated on the status of telephone competition in the Virgin Islands."
In his letter to Jackson, Malone said that "the timing is right" for new hearings, "as Innovative Telephone is seeking renewal of their tax incentives offered through our Economic Development Authority." (See "Phone company seeking renewal of tax breaks".)
PSC hearings to date on customer dissatisfaction with Innovative's service have not resulted in any appreciable improvements. Three such hearings were conducted last summer. When asked on Monday for examples of improvements in customer service that came about as a result of them, Keithley Joseph, PSC executive director, could not cite any.
Hill said he is determined to bring the issue before the Legislature for a full investigation. "Customers of the phone company and other utilities deserve to have their elected officials hear of their concerns in a forum that allows for residents to voice publicly what challenges they face," he said on Monday. "It is my intention to continue to act on this issue, and I will continue to pursue having this issue heard on the floor of the Legislature."
As far as Hill is concerned, "the Legislature has jurisdiction over the PSC. It was created by the Legislature, and the Legislature has the ability to change the law if it feels it is necessary."
The two senators also agree that the PSC needs greater funding. "The Legislature must provide this regulatory commission with the financial resources needed to help … protect the ratepayers," Malone said in his Monday letter to Hill. Both commended legislation being drafted by Sen. Luther Renee — the Senate's other ex-officio member of the regulatory body — to give the commission sufficient resources to hire the staff it needs to carry out its mandates.
Hill said Renee will introduce the measure at the next regular Senate session. The Legislature is meeting on Tuesday, but in a special session called by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to consider authorizing the sale of bonds for capital improvement wastewater management projects and to consider amendments to the recently passed act creating the Wastewater Management Authority.
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