Editorial: KCC controversy

New allegations of improper decisions being made behind closed doors, along with the sudden departure of its executive director, indicate all is not well at the state’s top utility regulatory agency.

The Kansas Corporation Commission is getting entirely too much attention these days, and the publicity is reflecting poorly on the state.

Late last month a leaked internal examination pretty much portrayed the agency as dysfunctional under the leadership of executive director Patti Petersen-Klein. Now it’s under scrutiny again for its closed-door handling of a rate case involving a Salina-area water utility.

The leadership issues may be at least partially resolved by Friday’s departure of Petersen-Klein from the agency. In the latter situation, the Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, which represents consumers, has notified the attorney general and the Shawnee County district attorney of a suspected violation of the state’s open meeting statute.

In a meeting about which no notification was provided, the KCC authorized a rate increase of more than 100 percent for a water company that serves a Salina development. The company’s customers had reported to the KCC various problems with the operator, including dirty water, foul-smelling water, water-line breaks, and low water pressure in the lines that serve them. Nonetheless, the rate hike was approved through a series of interviews with the three KCC commissioners by a staff member, without any public discussion. An attorney who represents Kansas Press Association members termed the procedure “plainly illegal” and “a classic serial meeting … a vote taken in secret.”

Then there’s the matter of the company’s finances. CURB questioned whether a water protection fee collected from customers ever found its way to the state and could find no proof the company had paid sales taxes. The report said the company had not paid its property taxes for 2010, 2011 and 2012 and further said that personal finances of the owner were intermingled with the water company’s and other businesses’ accounts.

So the dysfunctional agency and its beleaguered leader were back in the spotlight again – and again not for any positive circumstance.

Following news reports about the internal audit of KCC operations, Commissioner Tom Wright proposed that the KCC hire an independent consultant to look at the agency and address issues related to its employees and leadership. His motion at a meeting earlier this month died for lack of a second. At a meeting on Thursday, Wright upped the ante by moving that Petersen-Klein be relieved of her duties as executive director. That motion also died for lack of a second, but the commission subsequently went into executive session, and Friday morning, Petersen-Klein’s departure was announced.

Wright’s earlier suggestion that the agency hire an independent consultant was picked up by KCC Chairman Mark Sievers Thursday, and commissioners agreed to direct their staff to come up with a recommendation for an outside consultant to review various commission processes and procedures. Wright previously had said he wanted an independent review to address the growing perception that issues at the KCC were affecting its ability to do its job. That seems even more important now.

It’s good news that the KCC is taking steps to try to shore up its operation and its credibility. Such an effort appears to be long overdue.