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Renominations to PSC Board Come Under Fire

Aug. 10, 2005 — The renominations of Alric Simmonds and Alecia M. Wells to the Public Services Commission Board quickly turned sour Wednesday due to a letter and remarks submitted by former PSC legal counsel Maria Tankenson Hodge, which questioned the qualifications and interests of both individuals.
While the letter specifically focused on Wells' tenure within the PSC, senators also informed Simmonds that Hodge had spoken negatively about his nomination as well. When asked by Sen. Ronald Russell about the nature of these remarks, Simmonds responded by saying that Hodge was displeased about positions he had taken on certain issues in the past. "There have been situations where we've moved to make decisions and she's objected, or where she's moved to make decisions and we've objected," Simmonds said. "Either way, I don't support her statements."
Hodge also alleged that Wells "has been a voice of consistent and unwavering support for the telephone company," a statement which concerned senators because of the controversial nature of Innovative Communications Corp. with regards to inefficient service, its re-application for EDC benefits, and the institution of rate increases to residents.
"So biased is this commissioner that I would be hard pressed to identify a single issue on which she has not voted to support the phone company's position on anything," the letter said.
Wells informed senators that while she had not been given a copy of the letter by Hodge prior to Wednesday's hearing, she firmly believed that the attorney was "out of place" in her remarks. "I am a woman of integrity, and I can't believe Ms. Tankenson is forward enough to submit such a derogatory letter to the Legislature without giving me a copy to review as well. That would have been the decent thing to do," Wells said.
Controversy over Wells' renomination continued when the letter further mentioned that Wells has served on the PSC Board since 1998—a problem since tenure for nongovernment officials serving on the board is limited to two terms. According to law, once those two terms have expired, the nominee may only be re-appointed if the Legislature finds that he or she has provided exceptional service to the organization.
However, as senators scrambled to ascertain what Wells' contributions to the PSC have been over the past seven years, Wells maintained that since this is only her first call for re-appointment to the board, she has therefore only served one term as a PSC commissioner.
Legal counsel for the Legislature Yvonne Tharpes supported Wells' statement by explaining to senators that an individual may serve on a board or commission until a successor is identified by the governor. "In this case, Mrs. Wells is succeeding herself," Tharpes said. "She served out her first term, no successor was named, and now she is up for re-appointment for a second term."
Not convinced, Russell further argued that two terms for a board member is equal to six years. "Since Mrs. Wells has served seven, that puts her beyond the legal amount of years that one is allowed to serve on the commission," Russell said.
Tharpes further stated that such a matter has to be taken up with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, as he has allowed Wells to serve a seven-year first term.
Simmonds was also placed under fire when senators questioned him on his dual role as a commissioner on the PSC board and the governor's deputy chief of staff. "The PSC has the authority to vote on a number of important things, including the regulation of utility rates," Russell said. "If the governor were to take a particular stand on an issue regulated by the PSC, all he has to do is tell his deputy chief of staff to vote a certain way."
Much like Wells, however, Simmonds maintained his integrity, telling senators that there has not been any conflict so far—in fact, Simmonds added that Turnbull has not even brought up any issues relating to the PSC with Simmonds, and vice versa.
Ironically, Simmonds was later chastised for the very same thing, as senators stated that the PSC would be able to make more progress with regulating utilities and instituting structural changes if the governor were more involved in the process. "Why haven't you gone to him and requested help with reforming your organization?" Russell asked.
Russell, like other senators, felt that institutions like ICC and the Water and Power Authority are taking advantage of the commission and the consumer by instituting continuous rate increases. Additionally, since commissioners only have part-time positions on the board—PSC meetings are only once a month—Russell and Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste suggested that members do not have the time to adequately assert their authority over the utilities. "Your whole structure—much like that of the entire government—needs to be revamped," Jn Baptiste said.
In response, both Simmonds and Wells advocated for full-time PSC positions. "It would definitely give us more time to prepare for dealing with these issues, as well as give us more experience with handling the utilities," Wells said. "All of us on the PSC have other jobs, and sometimes balancing the two positions can get a little hectic."
Sen. Usie R. Richards added that full-time positions would also enable the PSC to better market itself to the public, educating the consumer on issues relevant to what exactly the PSC does, and how it affects the community. "The silence from the PSC is deafening … you guys don't tell the community what you're doing, how you're regulating the utilities … we have people calling the senate all the time, asking us to do something about the rising costs of fuel and electricity. They don't know that it's the PSC who has to regulate these things…and that's disgraceful."
Sens. Russell, Richards, and Terrence "Positive" Nelson voted that both Wells' and Simmonds' nomination be disapproved, while Sens. Lorraine Berry, Pedro Encarnacion, and Shawn Michael-Malone voted for re-appointment to the PSC board.
Due to an even split in the votes, both nominations were held in the Rules and Judiciary Committee until the next committee hearing.
The consideration of nominations for Roger Minkoff to the V.I Real Estate Commission and George Suarez to the V.I. Waste Management Authority were tabled indefinitely due to controversy surrounding the two candidates.
Minkoff's nomination has been pending in the committee since February.
Senators also voted to postpone consideration of Louise O. Petersen's nomination to the V.I. Historic Preservation Commission until the next committee hearing. Petersen was unable to attend the hearing due to a prior engagement.
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