With as much weight as it could throw from its bully pulpit, Montgomery County Council members Thursday took turns scolding and questioning Pepco and Maryland Public Service Commission Chairman Douglas R.M. Nazarian about a major source of county frustration, reliable power service.
“We need to make this work, this is not OK,” Council President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda said. “That you have replaced traffic as the No. 1. quality of life issue in Montgomery County is not a good thing.”
Council members patiently listened for more than an hour as Pepco touted its efforts toward reliability and its response to the June 29 derecho. Nazarian promised a detailed review, and, if necessary, painful punishment for the utility's response to the storm that left more than 400,000 of Pepco's customers in Maryland in the dark.
Council members’ questions during the more than three-hour special meeting frequently returned to the number of linemen and staff that the utility employs, whether it is sufficient and whether it sought enough aid from other utility companies during the latest storm.
Pepco Regional President Thomas H. Graham said the company has about 147 employees who work on lines and has about 400 contractors also available for line work.
Of Nazarian, council members questioned if the PSC had been asking the right questions of its utilities when assessing performance and whether removing Pepco's franchise had been considered.
Neither question received a clear answer.
The June 29 storm produced straight-line, near hurricane-force winds.
Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) of Silver Spring said before the meeting that if Nazarian would commit to overhauling Pepco and if, should the utility not accept those changes, the PSC would take away its franchise, then he would stand behind the chairman.
“But I think that short of threatening to take away the monopoly, I don’t know what these guys can do that is going to convince me that they are serious,” he said.
“People recognize that this is not a normal utility that we are dealing with,” Riemer said. “It is an out-of-control monopoly that does not care about its customers and requires extraordinary measures to enforce accountability.”
Riemer was circulating an online petition calling for the ouster of the five PSC members. By 6 p.m. Thursday, more than 3,700 had signed the petition.
During the meeting Graham uttered a gaffe that had many in the packed council hearing room asking “What?” He said it was not reasonable for residents to be upset when their power goes out for more than a week.
Given a chance to “rewind” by Berliner, Graham said again that residents’ frustration was not reasonable, a slip he later asked Berliner for a “Mulligan” to correct. On the third time, he said he completely understood the residents’ frustrations.
Raising nearly as many eyebrows was a statement by Nazarian that he did not know if he believed in climate change, but that with these recent storms, clearly Mother Nature has been angry.