Mark Sievers, Kansas Corporation Commission chairman, resigns

12/09/2013 12:31 PM

12/09/2013 2:39 PM

The chairman of the state’s utility regulation commission has resigned after a 30-month tenure marked by an open-meetings-law violation, clashes with the state’s consumer-protection agency and the departure of a controversial executive director.

Kansas Corporation Commission Chairman Mark Sievers’ resignation was announced Monday as a retirement in a statement issued by Gov. Sam Brownback’s office.

In the statement, Sievers, 60, was quoted as saying that he is leaving “to return to private life and spend more time with my wife.” He also said he looks forward “to ensuring my replacement has a seamless transition as he or she joins the Commission.”

The statement quoted Brownback as saying: “I appreciate Mark’s service to me and to Kansas. I wish him the best with his well-deserved retirement.”

Brownback will appoint a replacement to join commissioners Tom Wright and Shari Feist Albrecht on the three-member panel that sets electric and natural gas rates, makes and enforces state public utility regulations and regulates intrastate trucking.

The governor appointed Sievers to the commission in May 2011.

Last month, a judge ruled that the panel had violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act by using a process called “pink sheeting” to approve commission orders.

Under that process, staff members would circulate proposed orders to all three commissioners, who would sign the orders to indicate approval rather than voting in an open meeting. The process drew its name from the color of the slips of paper used to obtain commissioner signatures.

Recently, the commission has altered practice to consider its orders in open meetings and to allow the public to view the meetings live at the commission headquarters in Topeka and via videoconference link at the Finney State Office Building in Wichita.

The court ruling and a $500 fine – the largest allowed under state law – came after the state’s utility-consumer agency, the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, filed a complaint against the KCC with Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, who prosecuted the case.

Since the complaint, Sievers had called for an audit of CURB spending and accused the agency of raising the cost of conducting rate cases through unnecessary litigation. CURB responded that it was created by state law to represent residential and small-business consumers and that any litigation it filed was toward that end.

In one of the last acts of Sievers’ chairmanship, he attempted to file a statement attached to a Westar Energy rate case decided late last month. Westar had originally proposed to shift tens of millions of dollars in rate costs from its large industrial and commercial customers to residential and small-business ratepayers.

Sievers objected that the case was settled by Westar, CURB, KCC staff and other parties before the commission got to discuss the division of cost between large and small ratepayers and said the current methods for allocating those costs are deeply flawed.

The other two commissioners approved the settlement and declined to include Sievers’ statement in the official file of the rate case.

Sievers’ tenure also suffered from the departure under fire of the executive director who had been hired to lead the commission staff shortly after Sievers took over as chairman. Patti Petersen-Klein left the agency in June, shortly after the Topeka Capital-Journal disclosed results of a confidential consultant report on Petersen-Klein’s management of the agency.

The report said Petersen-Klein ruled the agency under an assumption that its employees were lazy and unreliable and had to be driven relentlessly by management to accomplish anything. That atmosphere led to the departure of numerous longtime staff members and cratered morale for those who stayed.

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