Firing leaves state utility consumer advocate office without lawyer

The Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board on Monday fired its interim consumer counsel, Niki Christopher, in connection with a bill introduced in the Legislature last week to limit the board’s authority.

The move leaves no attorneys working for CURB, the small state agency that legally represents residential and small-business customers in court-like proceedings that set the rates for electricity, natural gas and in some cases, other utilities.

CURB Chairwoman Ellen Janoski said the firing was related to an e-mail Christopher sent the board on Friday about House Bill 2500.

The bill was designed to keep the CURB board from shifting the agency’s focus away from representing small consumers in state rate cases and at the Legislature. It also would have nullified a CURB board order prohibiting Christopher from discussing utility issues with legislators and news reporters.

“Niki, you are not the first consumer counsel that the board has said we want you to talk to us before you talk to the press,” Janoski said during the public session of a CURB teleconference meeting Monday. “Making demands that we allow you to talk to whoever and that basically you said ‘I told you so,’ is absolutely upsetting to me.”

Board member James “Lenny” Mullin later said the board asked for Christopher’s resignation during closed session and when she declined, “The board terminated her effective immediately.”

Christopher, reached at CURB while cleaning out her office, said she did not want to make any immediate comment. A 15-year employee of CURB, she had not sought the permanent position as consumer counsel because she had planned to retire in August.

The board’s move drew an immediate and angry response from Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, one of two lawmakers who on Friday introduced the bill to limit the board’s control over the consumer counsel.

“That’s incredible,” Ward said of the firing.

Ward said he co-introduced the bill with Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, because they were concerned over board members’ comments in a December meeting, where they said they thought they could save more money for Kansas consumers if they shifted the agency focus to fighting federal air quality rules that are increasing the costs of coal generation. They did, however, move ahead on hiring a permanent consumer counsel for rate cases.

All four board members were appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback, a coal-power advocate and an opponent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

Ward said he thinks those politics are what’s behind the Christopher firing.

“These people will go to any extremes to prevent any ideas other than Brownback ideas,” he said. “What this agency was created to do was to represent consumers, individuals, homeowners, small businesses in rate cases. They are so opposed to that idea that they fire the consumer advocate. That’s unbelievable.”

The consumer counsel has traditionally spoken for the agency to the media and legislative committees. But the board forbade Christopher from doing that after the resignation of longtime CURB consumer counsel David Springe, who left the agency in December to take a position with a national utility advocates organization.

The firing followed two short closed sessions during a telephone conference meeting called by Janoski. During the public part of the meeting, Janoski criticized Christopher for an e-mail she sent the board related to House Bill 2500.

Instead of allowing us to just process the bill and give us the bill and let us decide, I felt very strongly she offered unsolicited demands in a very disrespectful way.

Ellen Janoski, chairwoman of CURB

“I am disappointed by Niki’s actions for this brief time we’ve asked Niki to advocate for the board,” Janoski said. “I felt that her e-mail did not advocate for the board’s best interests. Instead of allowing us to just process the bill and give us the bill and let us decide, I felt very strongly she offered unsolicited demands in a very disrespectful way.”

CURB did not release a copy of the e-mail on Monday.

Janoski said she opposes House Bill 2500 because she thinks it would strip the board of authority to control the activities of the consumer counsel, one of the key powers granted to the board.

“The truth of the matter is, this bill is ridiculous because what they would be doing is taking away any power of the board … I don’t like your legal advice and I just think that it’s unreasonable and it’s unnecessary,” she said. “It seems part of a planned crisis with the intent of creating your own desired outcome.”

Ward said the board created its own problems. As for Christopher’s e-mail, he said “she must have told the truth about what it (HB 2500) does.”