Thursday, February 5, 2015

Bad PUC Bills

Since the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission has been my Ohana for almost four years, I take it as a personal affront when poorly conceived bills like Senate Bill 772 and House Bill 1501 are introduced. All these bills would do is to further discourage good people from working at the PUC or qualified Commissioners to serve, thereby making it extremely difficult for the new Chair to staff up and move forward.

When I became the Chair in 2011 a primary objective was to build the staff capacity to meet the challenges of an energy transformation.  I was fortunate to start with a core group of dedicated public servants.  I was able to augment that team with eager young professionals (found some older ones too) wanting to make a difference in the energy sector.  What I was not prepared for was the Department of Budget & Finance bureaucratic nightmare when trying to implement the PUC reorganization and updating things like job descriptions and salary structures (to reward performance and longevity) – or the politics, making it difficult to retain good employees.

The problem here is not public utilities “stealing” PUC employees.  The problem is the PUC not paying fair compensation for experience, knowledge and other skill sets so valuable in a practice area that has a very small pool of potential candidates.  The operative phase here is “a very small pool of qualified candidates.”  The PUC has to compete with other agencies and the private sector (including a public utility) within this small pool.  Why would anyone (even a clerk or secretary) choose to work at the PUC knowing his or her future employment opportunities will be restricted?  Besides one should question if such restrictions on employment in a limited marketplace like Hawaii would even be constitutional.

Although I was always disappointed and sad to see good employees leave the PUC, I don’t buy into Henry Curtis’ suspicion of ulterior motives, which is what these bills reflect.  I personally know that PUC employees who applied for and accepted jobs at a public utility understood the PUC’s mission of aligning a public utility’s purpose and performance to serve the public and have carried forward this ethos.

There are many good people who work in this regulatory arena.  Our current laws are sufficient to take care of the bad ones.


  1. Definitely not in accord with HRS §480-4 (and a court would likely view it this way). Particularly where a monopoly already exists, imposing such a restriction would pose an undue hardship on an employee and be injurious to the public. ---Non-compete clauses are not favored, which is why they are unenforceable altogether in CA. And which is why Hawaii’s legislature is currently considering HB 1090:
    The legislature finds that postemployment restrictive covenants impede the development of businesses within the State by driving skilled workers to other jurisdictions and by requiring local businesses to solicit skilled workers from out of the State. Eliminating restrictive covenants for employees of the technology business sector will stimulate Hawaii's economy by preserving and providing jobs for employees in this sector and by providing opportunities for those employees to establish new companies and new job opportunities in the State.
    But, back to HB No. 1501, which proposes to impose non-compete clauses on state public workers. The Bill provides, in part: “The legislature finds it necessary to hold utilities and commissioners to high ethical standards to ensure the public is protected against abuse and to foster faith and confidence in the regulatory process…. Commissioners must establish public faith and confidence in the market and the government. The legislature finds public utilities have attempted to influence the regulatory process to serve their own interests. For example, a major news media outlet reported utilities in Florida spent millions of dollars in political contributions while pushing to remove commissioners that voted to deny a 30% rate increase.” --- Say what? And this is the public employee’s problem how?

  2. Thanks citizen987 for your insightful comments.