New utility consumer counselor is no stranger: Former Ameritech lawyer may have to reach out and touch consumer watchdogs

Consumer groups didn’t get a ponytailed zealot to head the Office of Utility Consumer Counselor.

No surprise there. Gov. Mitch Daniels has been fond of appointing ex-industry insiders to lead agencies charged with monitoring those same industries.

What the OUCC gets in former Ameritech attorney David Stippler is, at the very least, a man who already knows the utility industry in Indiana. The Evansville native has argued before its regulatory agencies for many years.

“They don’t have to forge a new relationship with me. I hopefully can start hitting the ground running,” said Stippler, 61.

He replaces Susan Macey, whom Daniels appointed in 2005. Macey is taking a job in Colorado.

For the last six years, Stippler worked at Indianapolis law firm Bingham McHale, representing cities and public utilities in regulatory issues.

Before that, he spent 17 years at Ameritech Indiana-now AT&T Indiana-before retiring as counsel for state regulatory matters.

Stippler can quickly rattle off the names of any number of lawyers representing this utility or that group-people he has relatively easy access to regarding any utility issue that comes before his office. With that, “I think we can cut to the chase” faster, he said. Stippler won the respect of opposing counsel during his time at Ameritech. “In all of my dealings with Dave, he has acted with honesty and integrity and openness in dialogue-not that we’ve always agreed,” said Jerome Polk, an attorney for Citizens Action Coalition.

Not-for-profit CAC is arguably the state’s most aggressive watchdog group arguing for consumer interests in utility cases.

Polk and CAC haven’t yet met with Stippler. What they plan to tell him is that they’ve been troubled in recent years by what they see as his predecessors’ lack of focus when the OUCC needed to be a zealous public advocate.

The OUCC, which intervenes in cases before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, has about 50 employees, including analysts, engineers, economists and attorneys.

Polk said the office increasingly has become “the governor’s executive assistant.” It too often desires to settle cases with utilities “at all cost” and is too quick to resolve conflict, he contends. Polk said the IURC is viewed as giving the state “one of the most friendly regulatory environments in the country.”

Stippler “is certainly smart enough and capable enough,” Polk added. “The question is, will [the governor let him] become a zealous advocate for consumers?”

It’s much too early to say, of course. Stippler’s business cards aren’t even printed yet, for which he apologizes. His corner office in National City Center, 15 floors above the RCA Dome and overlooking the Citizens Gas steam plant to the southwest, is decorated only with yellow paint and his many diplomas and certificates.

“I think I’m on everyone’s calendar,” he said of plans to meet with constituent groups, including CAC.

The OUCC grapples with a number of issues, including increased costs for ratepayers as Indiana’s coalfired electric utilities seek new capacity to meet an anticipated shortage of 3,220 megawatts by 2012.

That doesn’t count additional rate pressures likely to follow as the federal government regulates carbon dioxide emissions.

The growing tension between utilities and ratepayers is perhaps best illustrated by Duke Energy Corp.’s plans to build a $2 billion, 630-megawatt generating plant in Edwardsport.

Daniels let it be known he wanted the coal gasification plant, which will emit far less pollution than a traditional coal plant and stoke Indiana’s coal and construction industries. The IURC approved the project.

But groups, including the CAC, have filed an appeal, saying the plant is likely to be far more expensive in the long run after figuring in the cost of complying with anticipated federal carbon dioxide caps.

For their part, CAC, the Sierra Club and other groups would like to see the state encourage wind power and energy conservation, instead.

Stippler said the utility consumer counselor’s job today “is more than just rates and charges.”

Ratepayers’ interests also must be represented in areas such as environmental concerns, development of infrastructure and energy security, he said. Consumer constituents include not only residential ratepayers but commercial and industrial buyers of energy as well.

“First and foremost, we’re the consumer advocate,” he said. “I look at this as an opportunity to simplify some of these issues, though this office has to have the wisdom of Solomon, almost.”

One thing that’s clear is that Stippler is an advocate of competition to the extent it improves choices and reduces costs for ratepayers.

He pointed to the 2006 deregulation of Indiana’s telecommunication law. It allowed phone companies, including AT&T, to branch out with video and Internet services to better compete with cable television and satellite TV firms.

One of the most controversial provisions was that it allowed phone companies and other telecom providers, including cable TV companies, to expand statewide without having to obtain the same municipal franchise agreements cable TV firms had to negotiate over the years.

In exchange, AT&T pledged to expand Internet access to underserved areas of the state.

“I’ve certainly dealt with the consumer advocate for almost 20 years,” Stippler said. “I’ve litigated against them in the past.”

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