ATLANTA - In squaring off against a $4.8 billion monopoly, experience doesn't overcome the huge resource difference, but it helps.
Payton Hawes, Randy Quintrell and Rita Kilpatrick are rich in experience and are girding up for this month's hearings on Georgia Power Co.'s $103 million rate-increase request.
The members of the trio represent different groups of electricity customers, and they won't be alone in crossexamining company executives. But each of them has been tussling with utilities for years, probably back to when the government's lawyers who are charged with protecting consumers were still in high school.
Mr. Hawes, the dean of the trio, was first hired to question Georgia Power's rates in 1987 by the Georgia Textile Manufacturer's Association, some of the largest consumers of electricity in the state.
GTMA President Roy Bowen praises Mr. Hawes as articulate, insightful and knowledgeable of the behind-the-scenes debates at the Georgia Public Service Commission, the five-member panel that sets utility rates.
"He's got a good political sense about him," Mr. Bowen said.
Mr. Hawes got much of his preparation growing up in Elberton when his father was an influential legislator, state revenue commissioner and Supreme Court chief justice. Payton Hawes Sr. also was chairman of the committee lobbying for construction of hydroelectric dams, including Hartwell and Russell Dam on the Savannah River.
When the association last confronted a Georgia Power rate case in 1998, it changed its strategy. Now, instead of looking out just for textile mills, Mr. Hawes works with other consumer groups cooperatively for the concerns of all customers.
"We spent as much time as possible ... to convince them that we have a common interest here, which is a customer interest, and we shouldn't allow ourselves to be divided between classes (of customers) such that it misdirects our efforts," he said. "The company has every interest in seeing we are diverted."
Mr. Quintrell is a natural ally. Since 1989, he has represented the Georgia Industrial Group, a few dozen of the state's largest factories such as paper mills and chemical plants.
"From the perspective of the state as a whole, the more sets of eyes you have looking at that, it helps the commission come up with a good decision," he said. "We've been involved in this so long that we know the issues and the ins and outs of this. It's not something you can learn in law school. Every case with Georgia Power builds on the one before."
Ms. Kilpatrick, though, might seem an unlikely member of the trio. As the executive director of Georgians for Clean Energy, she is primarily focused on costs to individual consumers and on environmental risks.
She grew up in a family of conservationists, earned a degree in math and a graduate degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania, and began her career in the Vermont Department of Public Service.
Cooperation is important, she says, because there are so few groups involved.
"The utilities here have a very powerful presence and oftentimes a more powerful presence than consumer groups do," she said.
Besides the three, the National Federation of Independent Business - a small-business lobby - sometimes files briefs objecting to rate cases. And the staff of the commission weighs in on every case, as does the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs Consumer Utility Counsel. The members of the loyal opposition call each other to compare notes on strategy or to sort out the meanings of the hundreds of pages of documents filed in the case.
Often, the groups uncover different reasons for opposing Georgia Power claims and pursue divergent legal strategies. While they might not conflict with one another, they don't always support one another.
They appear to some observers like undersized defensive linemen gang-tackling a huge runningback.
And they all say they maintain friendly terms with Georgia Power attorneys.
"You've got to get along on a personal basis," Mr. Hawes said. "The room's too small. And second, you've got to tell the truth all the time or you'll get a reputation."
Ms. Kilpatrick says that level of trust still requires skepticism.
"We have worked on these issues a long time, but we are savvy enough to know that it's important to delve into the details of statements that are made by the utilities, the regulators, the other interest groups."
Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.