by James Owen, acting public counsel
Here at the Missouri Office of Public Counsel (OPC), we get a lot of questions. The main one: “What is it that you do again?” Since being named Acting Director in February, I’ve learned there is much confusion about OPC’s important role. As such, I’ve pledged to improve upon our accessible and make us more receptive to those we serve.
By statute, the OPC represents the Missouri public before the Public Service Commission (PSC) in contested matters and rulemakings. For example, an investor-owned utility must seek PSC approval when they want to change their rates. The OPC looks over the details and decides whether it will challenge this request. This applies to big and small utilities: the PSC regulates well-known companies like Ameren Missouri but also privately-owned water and sewer districts serving a few dozen citizens. The OPC can choose to get involved with all of them. A rate case looks similar to a court case: Discovery is conducted, testimony is filed, and if the parties cannot settle the matter, a hearing is held. If the utility or the OPC disagree with the PSC’s decision, either party can appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals. OPC also represents the public when a Missouri utility is being merged with or acquired by another company. The OPC also files complaints if we believe a utility isn’t following the law. We also field general complaints from the public and help them resolve their issues.
A contested PSC case, with the appeal, can take eighteen months to a year and sometimes longer. That’s alright because there’s a multiplicity of complicated legal and business issues for the OPC’s dedicated group of attorneys, accountants, economists, and researchers to review.
The OPC thinks of itself as a “geeky” prosecutor’s office, digging into technical and regulatory matters on behalf of the public good.
We also play another role many are not aware of, the “Ombudsman for Property Rights”. The Legislature charged the OPC with providing property owners with guidance on the condemnation process. The Ombudsman also documents the use of eminent domain in Missouri and provides the Legislature with an annual report of how Missourians are affected by eminent domain. OPC is about to embark on a push to educate the public on this function and how they can go about seeking guidance from our office. We don’t offer legal advice but the OPC will be able to inform concerned citizens about their rights and to get their input on this important subject. We plan to reach out to groups throughout the state. I am committed to bolstering these efforts during my tenure. If you have ideas about how we can conduct our outreach, contact me directly at 573-751- 5318.
Finally, we’re also unveiling a new web site by the fall as well as a Twitter account. You can follow us at @mopubliccounsel for topics we are following as well as news from our office. We look forward to keeping you informed about what it is we do.