ATLANTA -- A House committee approved a bill Wednesday allowing the Public Service Commission to elect its chairman without having to rotate the position.
A last-minute amendment delaying the effective date gave current Commission Chairman Tim Echols the balance of the year to finish his one-year term in the post. It represented a small victory for him by not ousting him as presiding officer, but he had fought efforts to change the selection of the chairman since he joined the commission last year.
He said a mid-year election would disrupt commission business.
“I can assure you it will distract us,’ he said.
Since 1991, the law requires the commission to rotate the chairmanship every January. For the last three or four years, Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald has lobbied to change it so that commissioners could elect whoever won the most votes and allow him to keep presiding as long as he kept getting re-elected.
He told the House Regulated Industries Committee before it voted on House Bill 1160 that some of the five commissioners don’t get along. He distributed copies of newspaper reports and another document that he asked committee members to destroy so that it wouldn’t get into the hands of reporters.
“It’s not my intention to embarrass any other commissioner,” he said, though he acknowledged making controversial statements.
McDonald disagrees with Echols so much that he wouldn’t let his name appear on PSC letterhead listing Echols as chairman.
Could the legislation be aimed at stripping Echols of power, asked Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming. He noted that Echols had been in the minority when the commission voted 3-2 to grant a request of $2.2 million to a telephone company from the Universal Access Fund over the PSC’s staff recommendation. At the end of the year, the small company paid its few shareholders a $2 million dividend, Hamilton said.
“Could this be retribution?” he asked.
“I’ve taken an enormous amount of flack,” Echols replied. “If this is retribution, I don’t know.”
Hamilton encouraged Echols to remain steadfast because he said the House leadership is annoyed at companies tapping the fund for profits when it was designed to extend phone service into rural areas.
The committee passed HB 1160 with only one no vote. Next, the Rules Committee can schedule a vote before the full House of Representatives, which could come before the March 7 deadline for bills to pass one legislative chamber or die.