The state's Public Staff consumer advocacy agency would be restricted from expressing policy opinions under a bill proposed by a Republican long opposed to North Carolina's renewable energy programs.
Rep. George Cleveland of coastal Onslow County said clamping down on the Public Staff is necessary to keep the agency from promoting political agendas that are not in the public interest.
Cleveland's bill Wednesday passed the House Committee on State Personnel and was sent to the full House for a vote. The Public Staff is a 75-person agency whose function is to advocate for the public in utility rate matters involving electric, natural gas, private water/sewer, ferry and moving companies.
Cleveland said that during the past six years the Public Staff has been advocating for the Democratic Party policy agenda, but would not offer specifics.
"I've dealt with the Public Staff in the past six years and I have become very frustrated in getting information and questioning what they did," Cleveland said. "If we're going to call it the Public Staff it should represent the public."
Robert Gruber, who has directed the Public Staff for the past 30 years, attended the legislative hearing and came prepared to answer questions, but he was not called to the microphone.
After the vote Gruber approached Cleveland, introduced himself, and explained that his agency is nonpartisan and follows state energy policies that are enacted by the legislature.
Gruber later said that Public Staff attorneys, engineers and accountants are sometimes consulted by energy developers on state law, policy and on technical matters. Gruber said Cleveland's House Bill 280 could be interpreted to prevent the Public Staff from responding to such inquiries from the energy industry, business groups, private citizens and even legislators.
Gruber's slot is appointed by the state governor and not elected, resulting in a low-profile role not dependent on public opinion. Last year, however, when the N.C. Utilities Commission was investigating Duke Energy's proposed merger with Progress Energy, Gruber publicly denounced Duke CEO Jim Rogers as deceptive and said Rogers should step down.
Before Wednesday's vote, legislators asked Cleveland to define "public interest" to help them understand what it is that the Public Staff would be prohibited from doing under his bill. Cleveland repeatedly said that the public interest is defined as not advocating for the agenda of any gubernatorial administration.
"That's a hard term to pin down as to what exactly is in the public interest or not," said Republican Rep. John Blust of Guilford County.
Cleveland, a retired U.S. Marine, made the national news recently when he said North Carolina does not have extreme poverty. The remark came during debate over the future of the state's preschool programs.
Staff writer John Murawski