City officials are mulling getting further involved in the pending sale of Juneau’s electric utility.
During a lengthy informational meeting Wednesday night, the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly Finance Committee agreed to have city staff look into becoming an “intervener” in the purchase of Alaska Electric Light & Power.
As Kirk Gibson, a partner in the McDowell Rackner Gibson PC law firm, explained, being an intervener would mean the city would have a say in the sale process. Canadian power company Hydro One is working to purchase Avista Corp., which is AEL&P’s parent company. Avista also owns electric utilities in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
The Regulatory Commission of Alaska is considering Hydro One’s application. As Gibson explained to the committee Wednesday, the city has an option to be involved in the process. Doing so — becoming an intervener — would mean the city could have a voice in the sale. The city, through an attorney, would try to represent the people (and ratepayers) of Juneau.
“You want to affect the process,” Gibson said. “Don’t go in here just for fun.”
One of the main reasons to get involved in the process, Gibson explained, is to protect ratepayers in Juneau. Utility companies must work in the “public interest” of ratepayers, he said, but in Alaska, that definition is looser than it is in other states.
Gibson said that in Washington state, for example, acting in the “public interest” is defined as doing no harm. In Alaska, there isn’t a definition. As a result of this, ratepayers in Washington might get more protections.
“A cursory review of the Avista-Hydro One applications in Washington would indicate that they’d offered in their application numerous terms and conditions for the protections of ratepayers,” Gibson said. “They didn’t do that in Alaska. To their credit, they didn’t have to because of the standard, but that’s where someone has to come and say what the public interest is for Juneau.”
AEL&P President and CEO Connie Hulbert pointed out Thursday that on page 25 of Hydro One’s application to purchase Avista, there’s a sentence that says that the commitments that Hydro One has made to Washington ratepayers will also apply to Alaska ratepayers.
The task for Juneau city officials at this point, Gibson said, is to try and determine what the public interest is. Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski said during Wednesday’s meeting that she believes the baseline for public interest should be the same as in Washington, to do no harm.
Going through this process, Gibson warned, could be very expensive. It depends, of course, on whether the city hires an outside attorney and how involved they want to be in the process.
City Manager Rorie Watt and City Attorney Amy Mead will meet during the next few days to determine how best to go forward. They’ll consider the possible costs and benefits of becoming an intervener, and Watt said they’ll aim to get the Assembly members an update at its Jan. 22 meeting.
Watt also mentioned that the Assembly has a meeting scheduled Jan. 18 with representatives from Avista and Hydro One, and if need be, he and Mead can provide an update there. The meeting with Hydro One and Avista was originally supposed to take place in December, but due to a helicopter crash that killed four Hydro One employees, the meeting was rescheduled.
During the public comment period, Juneau residents and other interested parties proved their interest in the purchase. Exactly 100 people submitted comment during the most recent comment period, including U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska and State Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole.
“This is a lot, I’ll say,” Gibson said of the amount of public comment, “which I think got the commission’s attention.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.