A sharply divided D.C. Council committee rejected Mayor Vincent C. Gray's nominee to a three-member commission that oversees public utilities, citing her temperament and the need to recuse herself from more than half of the current caseload.
The 3-2 vote by the Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs effectively kills the nomination of Elizabeth Noel to the D.C. Public Service Commission, despite vocal supporters who say she is the tenacious advocate the city needs to regulate the electric, natural gas and telephone companies that serve the District.
Committee Chairman Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, and other members were quick to praise Ms. Noel for her work as the People's Counsel — an advocate for quality service from public utilities and their equitable treatment of consumers — from 1991 to 2010, but they could not overcome a special committee's report from the D.C. attorney general that said Ms. Noel had to recuse herself from almost 60 percent of current cases because of her previous clashes with utility companies, specifically Pepco.
Pepco officials, including region President Thomas N. Graham, attended the markup to "monitor the process."
"Let me be absolutely clear, that my hesitation to the confirmation of Ms. Noel is in no way influenced by any outside party," Ms. Alexander said, noting publicly paid employees should be able to perform their duties "more than 40 percent of the time."
Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said he holds Ms. Noel in high regard and has supported her in the past, so her nomination marked one of the "more uncomfortable issues I've had to vote on."
He said he doubted her ability to maintain her "judicial temperament" as a member of the commission in light of her "combative" testimony at a confirmation hearing and lack of "reflection" in private discussions about the number of cases subject to recusal.
Also voting no was council member Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat.
Mr. Gray, who is typically considered a political ally of Ms. Alexander, denounced the vote in a statement on Thursday, arguing the committee "has denied District residents the watchdog they need and deserve"
Council members Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, and Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, voted in support of Ms. Noel.
Mr. Graham was swayed by messages from the community, while Ms. Cheh was especially candid in her assessment of the situation.
"What's really behind this is Pepco," Ms. Cheh said. "Betty Noel is nobody's puppet, and Pepco knows it."
She said Ms. Noel is qualified, because lawyers are trained to play the role they are assigned. Pausing to note the blunt nature of what she was about to say, Ms. Cheh argued that gender dynamics were also at play.
"Let's not expect, especially among our women lawyers, that they be meek and retiring," she said.
Her spirited defense of Ms. Noel prompted murmurs of approval from audience members, many of whom had firm opinions about the issue.
"My hero," Gilbrette "Gigi" Ransom, an advisory neighborhood commission member from Ward 5, said of Ms. Cheh. "She stood up for all women. I'm am so proud of her."
Mr. Graham, the Pepco regional president, downplayed the utility's inherent opposition to Ms. Noel.
"Our issue was the ability to perform," he said.
Yet a number of spectators, including advocates who protested outside the John A. Wilson Building, disagreed with the committee's decision.
"This is a sad day for the District of Columbia," Kathy Henderson, a candidate for the council seat from Ward 5, said as the hearing gaveled to a close.
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Tom Howell Jr. covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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