- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 21, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A state lawmaker sponsoring a bill that calls for a board to oversee the state public advocate says the move would take the politics out of the position and that it’s not solely the result of conflicts between a utility headed by his son and the advocate’s office.

But opponents - including Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s acting energy director and the Maine Public Utilities Commission - are urging a legislative committee to kill the bill, which they said would endanger the independence of the public advocate.

Republican Rep. Roger Sherman said he is sponsoring the bill because he’s not always “sure” of decisions made by Public Advocate Timothy Schneider, who supports ratepayers before state, regional and federal regulators. Sherman’s son is the general manager of a municipal water and electric utility that has butted heads with the advocate’s office and helped shape Sherman’s bill.

Schneider was appointed by LePage and confirmed by the Maine Legislature in 2013 for a four-year term that expires in May.

LePage has clashed with Schneider on solar policy and has called his appointment “one of the worst, worst decisions ever in my life.”

Schneider’s predecessor Richard Davies, who was appointed a decade ago, served at the pleasure of the governor and was considered part of the administration. But legislators in 2009 changed the law to make the public advocate form policy positions independent of the governor.

Schneider, a former lawyer representing electricity and natural gas companies, told the Legislature’s joint energy, utilities and technology committee on Tuesday that his office isn’t “totally immune” from political pressure because the governor and Legislature approve his office’s budget requests.

Still, he said: “I’m reasonably confident that if I did something that upset the governor I would be able to carry out my term because of protections the statute affords me.”

Sherman said his bill would strengthen the independence of the public advocate by creating a three-person board that would appoint the next advocate and provide “policy guidance.” Under his proposal, the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker each would appoint one of the board’s members. The public advocate would serve a six-year term, subject to legislative confirmation.

Opponents on Tuesday urged the committee to kill the bill at an upcoming work session, and said tweaking it to prevent the board from arbitrarily removing the public advocate wouldn’t satisfy their concerns with the bill’s intent.

“This structure intentionally, and transparently, makes the public advocate subject to the influence of the board - a board made up of members who are political appointees,” said Angela Monroe, LePage’s acting energy director.

The next public advocate’s term would begin Feb. 1, 2018.

“We can get someone in there with a little bit of a different view of things,” Sherman told The Associated Press before Tuesday’s hearing.

Sherman, who questioned the viability of wind power and noted that LePage has called for more hydropower and lower electricity costs, said the next advocate should listen to such calls.

“I think he or she really should listen to this: We need power, cheap as we can have it,” Sherman said.

Sherman’s son, Greg, is general manager of Houlton Water Company, a municipal water and electric utility that recently won permission from the LePage-appointed Public Utilities Commission to leave Emera Maine and connect to the Canadian power grid.

The public advocate opposed the move, questioning the projections of savings and what would happen during a power outage.

In prepared testimony, Greg Sherman told the committee that his father’s bill would “take some politics out of the appointment.”

The younger Sherman said that over the past 15 years, the public advocate has three different times reversed its support of policies that the utility backed.

In 2014, the public advocate’s office withdrew its opposition to a multimillion-dollar wind venture that the utility opposed.

“We do not know if the governor interfered with the policy change but having the (public advocate) report to a three-person board would allow for different opinions and balanced guidance,” Greg Sherman said.

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