Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission
The commission and its staff are public servants. All files on formal commission cases are open for public review. All meetings are open and held at regularly scheduled times. The commission's library is open to the public.
The commission takes action on many of the matters that come before it at its regularly scheduled open meetings. These meetings are typically held the second, fourth, and fifth Thursdays of each month beginning at 9:30 a.m. Occasionally, due to scheduling conflicts, meetings are held at a different day or time.
Commission staff bring matters to the commissioners for decision by placing them on the agenda for the open meeting. Items considered at this forum (called dockets) include changes to a company's rates, terms or conditions for service (tariff revisions); requests by companies for authority to take actions, such as transfer property, issue securities, or change their accounting practices; and notices of inquiry and rule makings. Dockets requiring additional investigation, fact-finding, or those involving substantial disagreements between the parties are typically considered by the commission at formal, contested hearings rather than at the open meeting.
Different types of dockets require the commission to take different actions to approve or deny. For example, changes to a company's tariff become effective upon the expiration of the required notice period (typically 30 days) unless the commission takes action to conduct a further investigation (called suspension). Alternatively, applications and petitions are authorized by commission order before going into effect. These different requirements have resulted in a fairly complex open meeting agenda composed of four sections - consent, no action, action and other. Each of these is described below.
Consent agenda: The Consent agenda is usually the first order of business at an open meeting. This section includes dockets that: (a) require a commission order for approval; (b) staff has determined to be of a noncontroversial nature; and (c) contain no issues of concern to the public. These items are typically approved on a single motion by the commissioners. commission staff do not prepare a memo or make a presentation on these items. However, before approval, the Chair asks whether the commissioners or anyone in the audience wishes to comment on any of these items. If someone asks to address a Consent item, it is removed from the Consent agenda and considered.
No Action agenda: This section contains revisions that are not controversial. We call it the "No Action" agenda because procedurally these matters go into effect upon the expiration of the required public notice period. As with dockets on the Consent agenda, anyone may ask to comment on a No Action item.
Action agenda: Items placed on this part of the agenda are typically the more important matters before the commission. These are proceedings that are receiving a high level of interest from the industry, customers, or other stakeholders. Procedurally, these items may be any type of filing (tariff revision, application, petition, rulemaking, etc.).
Prior to bringing these matters to the open meeting agenda, staff has conducted an investigation into the filing and/or worked closely with the proposing company or group of stakeholders. Staff work is summarized in a memo. The memo also includes a staff recommendation for commission action. These are usually distributed to the commissioners on Monday before the open meeting. Staff also make an oral presentation at the open meeting summarizing the issues raised in the memo.
For the convenience of interested persons and the efficient use of staff, the Action agenda is divided into two sections each addressing a different industry segment. The utility section includes matters relating to electric, gas, telecommunications or water companies. The transportation portion involves matters affecting solid waste, rail, boat or other transportation companies.
Other Items agenda: This section is used for special presentations by companies or industry groups and for matters, which are likely to take longer to resolve (e.g., consideration of interconnection agreements under the Telecommunications Act of 1996). Typically, these matters are not heard the same day as the open meeting. These items are included in the published agenda as a means of giving notice to interested persons when the matter will be heard or the presentation made.
How to get involved in an Open Meeting
Unlike most state agencies, the commission often functions as a quasi-judicial body. This means that, like a court of law, it rules on cases brought before it. At the commission, these cases are usually company requests for increased revenue, permission to build new plant, or change service policies. Like a court of law, the commission cannot simply rule out of hand. It must base its decisions on the evidence it collects, such as expert testimony, company records or data, statements from members of the public, and other information. The commissioners hold these formal, adjudicative hearings throughout Washington State.
Cases are conducted according to a strict procedure; with all parties given a chance to testify and cross-examine other parties. Major decisions are in written form, called an order and the affected companies are bound by law to follow them, though they may appeal through the court system. A hearing officer provided by the commission's Administrative Law Division conducts commission hearings.
The Washington State Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and commission rules govern how the commission conducts its adjudications (contested cases, for example, rate cases, formal complaints, etc.), rule making proceedings, and judicial appeal of commission decisions.
When the commission begins adjudication, the APA section on "ex parte communications" (RCW 34.05.455) is invoked. That provision prohibits the commissioners and the presiding administrative law judge from communicating, either directly or indirectly regarding any contested issue in the case, with any person who participates in the case on behalf of a party to the proceeding, for example, commission staff, Public Counsel, company representatives, and interveners. There is an exception for procedural matters such as scheduling.
The commission's rule (WAC 480-09-140) also applies to "ex parte" communications. That rule basically mirrors the statute, but makes it clearer that prohibition about discussions of issues extends to all of the commissioners' advisory team members and to any person on behalf of a party.
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