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Turn up the heat on the Public Service Commission

One of two utility regulators needs a wake-up call

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Every six years, Georgians decide who will serve in one of the most important and overlooked offices in the state: the Public Service Commission, a five-member board that decides how much you pay to turn on the lights in your home and heat up your oven.

It's a complex, difficult job that involves lawyers, lobbyists, and staffers wrestling over the cost of some utility, telephone, and cable TV bills. It also pays the commissioners annual salaries upward of $115,000 each.

Over the next few years, the PSC will make complex decisions that could not only help make Georgia more environmentally friendly, but also impact residents' wallets. In 2013, commissioners will start creating a plan for the state's energy portfolio over the next 20 years. In addition, it will oversee the construction of Georgia Power's two new nuclear reactors near Augusta, hear utility companies plead for rate hikes, and prepare for the retirement of several coal plants.

For the most part, Georgians have made poor choices on deciding who fills the seats. Now they have a chance to determine whether two of the commissioners — Chuck Eaton and Stan Wise — should serve another term.

Wise, the agency's longest-serving member and resident pro-utility lapdog, needs to go. In his 18 years on the dais, the Cobb County Republican has consistently sided with Georgia Power and collected thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from lawyers and lobbyists who represent the utilities he's supposed to regulate. In addition, he's pocketed donations from the utilities' executives — which, while not illegal, isn't exactly ethical. Between June 2008 and June 2010, the commissioner showed up to the office only 58 percent of work days, according to an AJC investigation that year. ("It's clearly no indication of whether you are or are not doing your job," he told the paper. "The rates that the public pays, that's an indication of what we're doing.") To top it off, he declined to debate his general election challenger.

No Democrats qualified to oppose Wise, but many have put their support behind Libertarian David Staples — perhaps the first free-market champion we've met who'd like to become a regulator. The Powder Springs IT specialist and horse farmer is smart, curious, and armed with numerous ideas to boost clean energy and encourage Georgia Power to start investing in wind, solar, and biomass. He'd also use the PSC's bully pulpit to push state lawmakers to pass legislation encouraging homeowners to use solar power. Plus: He's sworn off donations from people linked to utilities.

Selecting a candidate in the other race is more difficult. Yes, Eaton, the first-term commissioner accepts campaign contributions from utilities, which calls into question his role as an independent regulator. But he's also smart, open to different ideas, and recently started championing solar power, although it's in part because the cost has decreased and technology improved.

Both of Eaton's challengers — Steve Oppenheimer, a Sandy Springs Democrat, and Atlanta Libertarian Brad Ploeger — have some strengths.

Oppenheimer, however, is armed with more proposals about improving transparency, pushing clean energy, and promoting energy efficiency — bringing a much needed diversity to the commission. If you're looking for new blood on the dais, he is your man. But Eaton, while no Bobby Baker or Angela Speir (the two former commissioners widely viewed as the most fair-minded regulators to ever sit on the dais), is intelligent and interested in the details.

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