13. Invent New Tools for Reform
Back in 1989 the Illinois legislature required Commonwealth Edison to periodically include am insert in its bills that was an invitation for its customers to join a Citizens Utility Board. Within 18 months 180,000 customers joined. The $5 annual dues hired a staff of lawyers, economists, and organizers to defend customer interests before the utility commission. The notice did not cost CE any money because the postage for bills did not go up. It also didn’t cost tax dollars.
It paid off. In 1993 the CUB caught Commonwealth Edison in overcharging its customers. The CUB case was so strong CE didn’t fight it and refunded $1.3 billion to its customers.
A CUB is one way to build democratic participation in decisions on choices of energy, pollution, pricing, zoning, handling of consumer complaints, billing practices, quality of services, and the overall management of our utilities, which generally enjoy cushy relationships with their state and federal regulators.Where CUBs operate there is always consumer representation at public hearings and meetings between the utilities and their gov’t overseers. When that consumer representation isn’t there utilities almost always get their way.
Such citizen boards don’t have to be restricted to utilities. They could be used to advocate in insurance, banking, credit card, and lots of other businesses. Perhaps also citizen boards to oversee government agencies in the areas of taxes, fuel efficiency, environment, Social Security, Medicare, the social safety net, education, and more.
Of course, utilities and other agencies who would be watched by a CUB (as well as GOP politicians), don’t like this idea. A California utility refused to carry such inserts and the case went to the Supremes – where a conservative majority said corporate personhood has freedom of conscience to refuse such mail inserts. Since then states haven’t wanted to touch the issue.
It is time for citizens to tell their legislators about the CUB idea and push to make it happen.