Editor’s note: this op-ed column is a response to a guest editorial from the Athens Banner-Herald that ran July 30.
Did you ever do something good as a kid – or even as an adult – only to find out it backfired? Welcome to my world.
In turning down a new Ford Crown Victoria and state gas card that comes with my job as a statewide elected official, I have come under fire.
Believe me, any car would be more comfortable to drive than my 1999 natural gas Honda Civic, especially up and down the roads of our state for hours at a time.
But driving this alternative-fueled car was a promise I made to demonstrate that CNG can work in Georgia. Plus, it saved the state almost $30,000 in capital costs, plus the gas and insurance. I thought that was a good idea, but maybe not.
As a new commissioner elected statewide last November, I have spent the first seven months in office burning up the highways across Georgia. I’ve been meeting constituents, listening to concerns, discussing energy issues and getting an earful about power bills – things you would expect to be directed to a regulator.
But recently, naysayers have taken issue with my outreach to our citizens, choosing to simply compare me to four other commissioners as if I should simply fall in line and do exactly what has been done before.
Maybe I am wrong, but it seems to me voters have a right to expect access to the Public Service Commission, regardless of where you live in Georgia.
Good grief, there are five of us elected statewide. No other agency has five statewide elected officials. We have one insurance commissioner, one labor commissioner and one agriculture commissioner, to name but a few.
But the fact that Georgia’s Legislative fathers named this commission the “Public Service Commission” means they did not intend for these five officials to stay sequestered in comfortable Atlanta offices.
To me, being accessible to citizens is job No. 1. That means that I should be inconvenienced – not them – even in how I get there. I have not set foot on the state planes or state helicopters. Maybe the press should request those logs. Instead, I chose to drive the alternative fuel subcompact car in an effort to lead by example.
Some have suggested that taking my wife or an older child with me is inappropriate, too. I disagree.
While other agency heads have state-paid drivers for their state car, I use a family member, who is not even paid at all.
And in not one single instance has the state spent a penny on my family – not one meal, or even a Coke. Only my legitimate state expenses are reimbursed.
By having a driver, I can continue to work in the car on the smartphone and have a safer trip, too.
Most know that I have a large family and have been married 28 years. It is an important part of who I am, and I believe having them with me from time to time is an asset. Without my wife’s support and encouragement, I would not have run for office, and she represents the state of Georgia as well as I do.
Being a public service commissioner also means protecting and serving consumers. That means understanding the issues.
As a new commissioner on a panel of long-serving officials, I, of course, have a learning curve that has required me to tour power plants, factories, telephone central offices, university labs, attend national and regional conferences – all in an effort to get up to speed so that I can fully serve and protect the consumers I represent.
People expect me to know what I am talking about. My travel and preparatory efforts to do that are essential. In fact, they are part of the PSC budget.
Finally, as a PSC commissioner, I need to answer consumers and provide solutions to issues they face in a timely manner. That means listening, connecting people to others who can help and having an extensive network of relationships that can bring resolution to problems. Part of the reason I can do this effectively is because I have traveled up and down this state hundreds of times in an effort to get informed.
The PSC is a relatively unknown entity. I know that from knocking on thousands of doors last year in my elections. Some know that we have regulatory authority over Georgia Power, Atlanta Gas Light and small telephone companies around the state, but most folks do not.
It is my goal to make sure that “public service” stays a part of the Public Service Commission, and I cannot do that locked away in an Atlanta office.
I welcome your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.