Let’s be careful out there, Tim.
That line, from the old TV cop show “Hill Street Blues,” seems about the right tone to strike with new Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols regarding the news that he’s spent far more public money on travel expenses than other members of the body that regulates telecommunications, transportation, electric and natural gas services in the state.
Commissioners are elected on a regional basis, but serve in a statewide capacity. Echols was elected to his post in November, after founding and running the nonprofit TeenPact – an organization aimed at getting young people involved in the political process – for 15 years. He also worked on the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of former state insurance commissioner John Oxendine.
According to a Wednesday report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Echols has billed the state for more than $12,300 in expenses since taking office in January. Among the expenses submitted by Echols was $1,231.42 for a trip to Savannah, where he appeared in a St. Patrick’s Day parade with his personal compressed natural gas vehicle. Echols’ son was with him for the trip, for which Echols later billed the state almost $250 in mileage and almost $400 in meals.
Echols also submitted expense reports for two trips to St. Simons connected with a media event involving solar energy. His son accompanied him on one of those trips, and his wife and daughter accompanied him on the second trip. For both of those trips combined, Echols billed the state almost $800, according to the Atlanta newspaper.
A trip to Albany, which coincided with a track meet in which his daughter was participating, saw Echols bill the state almost $340.
By way of comparison, the next-highest-spending PSC members, Lauren McDonald and Doug Everett, have filed expense reports this year totaling $7,747 and $6,169 respectively, according to the AJC.
Echols defended himself by saying, as paraphrased by the newspaper, that he wants to “raise the stature of the Public Service Commission, which he believes is part of his job as a commissioner.” Echols went on to tell the newspaper that another part of the reason for his travels around the state is an interest in promoting rail transportation, which he said he does with “my state leader hat on.”
On a purely parochial level, it’s difficult to offer particularly harsh criticism of Echols’ stated goal of boosting the profile of the Public Service Commission.
Echols is a regular visitor to this newspapers’ offices, and during those visits, he routinely shares his views on issues related to the commission’s work …
So, when Echols says he’s working to raise the stature of the commission, he is – at least as far as we can see – actually doing what he says he wants to do.
As a practical matter, however, Echols’ expenditures should be – as they are – raising eyebrows.
Certainly, in a time of austerity in state government, Echols’ expense reports seem more than a little bit out of line, particularly when they come from trips in which he’s included family members.
Our advice to Commissioner Echols would be to continue his work to bring the PSC a little closer to the people of the state but to do so with a more judicious eye toward how much that work is costing the state’s taxpayers.