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Growing Grassroots Campaign Takes Aim At Pepco, State Regulators

By Aaron Kraut

Thursday - 10/17/2013, 12:10pm  ET

Powerupmontco founder Abbe MilsteinIt was day five without power and there was a utility pole, split in half and tangled in wires, on Abbe Milstein’s North Bethesda street.

In the wake of the June 29, 2012 derecho, Milstein spent much of her time jockeying for outlets at a Barnes & Noble and checking for power updates on the listserv of a neighborhood swim club.

“I thought, ‘You know, something is not right here. It just doesn’t feel right,’” she said. “People were in panic mode.”

It sparked a Google search, a call to Councilmember Roger Berliner’s office, a meeting with neighbors, a crash course in utility law and a July 19 briefing at the County Council in which a number of elected officials grilled Pepco leaders.

Also there were dozens of upset residents. They weren’t allowed to speak that day, but more than 70 testified a few weeks later when the state’s Public Service Commission held a Rockville public hearing on a Pepco request for a rate increase.

Many were urged to testify against the increase through Milstein’s email list, Powerupmontco, which the 45-year-old stay-at-home mom uses to sound off on Pepco and the state’s regulation process for utility companies.

“As I got further and further and deeper and deeper into it, I realized that not only was it a state issue and was it a problem, but a lot of people who were voting on things and implementing policy didn’t really understand what they were doing,” Milstein said. “That’s when it really came home for me.”

On Nov. 6, more than a year after she started Powerupmontco, the group will join the AARP to host an educational forum for candidates in next year’s primaries. This comes after a lobbying trip to Annapolis during the 2013 session and an intervening role in the latest Pepco rate case.

Though not a nonprofit or official lobbying group, the presence of Milstein and Powerupmontco is growing.

“She’s serious about this,” said Berliner, who has taken the lead in electric reliability issues on the Council. “She’s a sophisticated person and she is smart and she works hard. That’s what you need when you are doing this kind of work, as well as a long-term outlook. If you’re looking for short-term gratification, it doesn’t come. This is a long, tough slog.”

Milstein worked in Annapolis as an intern for one session during college. She got a law degree, worked at a law firm, became an aid for Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, went to a Democratic think tank and helped on a campaign for Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel in her home district outside Philadelphia.

She moved to the Luxmanor neighborhood in 2000 and became a stay-at-home mom. Big storms rolled through, shutting power off for long periods of time. She claims sunny day outages weren’t uncommon. But it was the 2012 derecho that sparked action.

She read a 2011 report from the Montgomery County Pepco Work Group, which was charged with investigating frequent Pepco outages. The group, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, faulted Pepco for its performance and called on the state’s Public Service Commission to “impose remedies sufficient to align Pepco’s financial interests with the interests of the community.”

Photo via Abigail ReidLater that year, the PSC fined Pepco $1 million for failing to maintain power lines that resulted in prolonged outages.

The PSC, a quasi-judicial body which has five members appointed by the governor, determines the outcome of rate increase requests from utilities that operate in Maryland.

There is a state Office of People’s Counsel, which represents consumer interests before the PSC.

But Berliner, who worked as a utility lawyer in California before coming to Montgomery County, said Maryland doesn’t have the type of organized and well-resourced ratepayer advocacy that exists there.

“Public utility law is one third public policy, one third law and one third politics,” Berliner said. “It is very complex. It is resource-intensive, so that’s a limiting factor for a grassroots organization. I think Powerupmontco, given those limitations, has provided a very valuable service.”

Milstein sends an email about every four to six weeks, sometimes more frequently if a rate case is in the news. Lately, she has taken aim at the PSC itself. She argues it tilts too heavily to the side of utility companies.

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