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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: A recusal with bite

by John Brummett | September 11, 2022 at 1:40 a.m.

"It's all good, man. I recuse."

And, with that, the chairman of the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, basically told Petit Jean Electric Cooperative it won't have his sense of fairness toward customers to kick around anymore.

Ted Thomas, that chairman by virtue of Asa Hutchinson's appointment in 2015, and a quirkily ingratiating fellow distinguished by great height and intelligence, issued a playfully biting recusal order Wednesday.

He said all right, sure, he'd step aside in a pending investigative matter involving Petit Jean. He explained he would do so on the basis that, yes, he has said publicly that the co-op ought to quit delaying and over-lawyering users who want to get rate-relief for connecting their own solar panels to the grid.

You read that right. A conservative Republican regulator--which I assure you Thomas is, based on observing him in the Legislature in the Mike Huckabee era--has a plain-spoken, populist, pro-consumer position in opposition to a corporation.

For the record, the state's rural co-ops insist they aren't corporations, and indeed they organizationally aren't. They are, well, as the word implies, member co-ops. But the distinction is sometimes fuzzy at the lawyering and lobbying level.

Come to think of it: The issue here is that the Petit Jean Electric Cooperative isn't being very cooperative with its "members."

I should say at this point that, in contemporary American politics, certain conservative Republican positions can seem more populist, more regular-guy-friendly, than liberal Democratic ones that can seem a tad elitist.

This also would be a good point to tell you that the configuration of the five-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is such that it has three Democrats and two Republicans, and one of the Republicans will be departing in a year. Joe Biden will be required by rule to appoint a Republican. Thomas is getting some touting for that appointment.

I mean, if you're having to appoint a Republican federal energy regulator at a time of major climate-regulation interest, then why not look at that tall, smart guy in Arkansas who took out after a utility for dragging its feet on fair treatment of alternative energy? And who quoted from "Better Call Saul" in an order he closed by saying, "It's all good, man."

What he did was accuse Petit Jean of a "Saul Goodman stunt," which is not altogether complimentary.

Thomas pointed out that Petit Jean just got a fair hearing and a rate increase out of the commission with him on it, but ... whatever. It's all good, man. He recuses, as the co-op wanted.

Petit Jean's problem with him mainly is that he chastised the co-op on this solar-energy matter in testimony to a legislative committee. Now the commission has opened an investigation of the solar-panel resistance.

So, Petit Jean sought Thomas' disqualification.

Here is the issue in a general summary: Members of the Petit Jean co-op have purchased solar panels they want to install at their home and wire into the grid, but Petit Jean says no. Thomas, telling me he can talk as "Citizen Ted" now that he no longer is a commissioner in the matter, thinks the co-op balks for economic reasons and some possibly semi-valid concerns about shifting to other members the savings that the members with solar panels would be realizing. But he said other utilities manage to consolidate the grid with solar power. And he said Petit Jean has spent more for lawyers than any amount shifted by a set of residential solar panels.

Anyway, he said, the commission has offered to consider cost-shifting issues and solutions.

About his legislative testimony, allow me simply to quote Thomas from his recusal statement: "I said 'do the right thing' [to legislators] because leaving solar panels on a roof not interconnected for over a year is not doing the right thing. Why is it so important to Petit Jean that ... solar panels not be connected to the grid? At the hearing I said that the purpose [of] not interconnecting is so that they will stand as an example to their neighbors about ... what happens when a mere 'member' seeks to oppose the monopolist and its army of litigators. 'Members' then get to pay the army of litigators that oppose them."

I told Thomas on Thursday he must have been channeling his inner Ocasio-Cortez. He didn't seem to care for that so much, but managed a chuckle in relating that his conservative pals have started calling him "California Ted."

Anyway, Thomas summarized in his order that he was stepping aside in the matter in order to pre-empt an appeal argument for Petit Jean--that being his bias--by which it could further delay the right thing.

It's fair to say that alternative energy is not an Arkansas strong suit and that the network of rural co-ops is at the very heart of the Arkansas energy culture, meaning not at all progressive.

And that's actually not all good, man.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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