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When Pepco’s official spokesman who appeared before the Montgomery County Council at its July 19th hearing called to receive testimony from citizens about their displeasure with the utility’s shockingly poor performance in restoring electric service following the monster storm that swept through the region on the night of June 29th, blandly stated that it was “obviously [unreasonable for people] to be upset that they’re out of service for a week or more.”

As characterized by the Washington Post’s Robert McCarthy in his July 21st column, this “whopper of a Freudian slip by a top Pepco official . . . unwittingly revealed the electric utility’s true attitude toward its customers, which is one of barely concealed contempt.”

We hold the same view expressed by the columnist, including his attributing the official’s “contempt” for us ratepayers as a Freudian slip. After all, a Freudian slip reveals the speaker’s underlying, unconscious thoughts; the psychoanalytic view holds that there are inner forces outside of the speaker’s consciousness that are directing what he or she says. Thus, in our view, what the Pepco official was stating was precisely the unvarnished truth about Pepco’s attitude, something that is understood within Pepco’s executive offices but about which officials are expected to be silent.

While we are pleased that Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette M. Alexander convened a meeting of the council’s Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, which she chairs, to hear from what was a large turnout of very vocal and disgruntled DC residents about Pepco’s inadequacies and unreliability, we were also not pleased that only one other member of her committee attended —  Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, who was joined by newly elected but non-committee member Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan R. McDuffie. Three other committee members were absent: Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, At-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary M. Cheh –- particularly surprising given that her ward was especially hard hit by the storm and that huge numbers of her constituents were adversely affected.

Notwithstanding the committee’s slow start, Councilmember Alexander says that this was just the start; that Pepco will be held accountable by the District government.

But we fear that neither her committee nor the City Council is really in a position to put the reigns on the runaway Pepco; only the DC Public Service Commission (PSC) can force Pepco to do what is right. So far, we have not seen evidence that the PSC is inclined to move aggressively –- in contrast to the Maryland PSC which just very recently turned down a huge rate increase petition from Pepco and awarded the utility only an amount that was required by Maryland statute.

We must insist that our PSC move with alacrity and toughness to bring Pepco in line. Further, the PSC must not allow Pepco to pass on to the already overcharged DC ratepayers the cost of bringing its infrastructure and years of deferred maintenance up to speed; its shareholders should be the ones to bear the costs.

Cleveland Park resident and well-respected, highly knowledgeable civic activist Ann Loikow, in an August 1st posting in TheMail, the twice-weekly on-line newsletter focusing on DC government and politics, reported what was reveled at the recent Pepco hearing which clearly shed light on what’s behind the utility’s inability to perform properly and how its refusal to spend money to maintain the system has hurt the ratepayers:

“It came out at the recent hearing on the derecho outages that Pepco only has 123 line mechanics and that only 29 are experienced enough to restore service directly from a pole to a house. In 1993, Pepco had 209 linemen, despite serving significantly fewer residents in the area at that time. Many of these contract linemen are from across the country and need several days, under the best circumstances, to get here before they can even begin repairing the damage to the lines from storms like the recent derecho or Hurricane Isabel. This downsizing of its unionized workforce has been going on for over a decade and sure explains why we have such long power outages in DC.”

So, until Pepco reforms itself, the PSC should not award it one single plug nickel. It is the responsibility of a business that serves customers to pick up the cost of maintaining its physical plant and services, not the other way around –- that is what is known as the cost of doing business.