The organizer of an upcoming forum in Montgomery County for candidates to learn about utility regulation and reliability issues said she has been threatened and pressured because of the event.
Powerupmontco, an email-based citizens group formed in response to the weeklong power outage after the June 2012 derecho, has scheduled a private forum for Wednesday in North Bethesda for statewide candidates.
The forum aims to educate those candidates about utilities, regulation and reliability issues, said group founder Abbe Milstein. The public and utilities are not invited.
But since scheduling the forum, Milstein said she has been under pressure from Montgomery County’s largest electric provider, Pepco, to allow it to attend, has been questioned for violating open meetings laws and even has received a threat.
Milstein would not detail the threat or say who sent it. She would only say it came from a nonelected public official and was sent to her with a disclaimer of confidentiality.
She said she was looking into any laws about public officials making threats against citizens and their free speech.
As for Pepco, company spokeswoman Myra Oppel said it has taken no for an answer.
“Once we received Ms. Milstein’s email telling us that we could not attend, we have made no effort to gain entry to the powerupmontco forum,” Oppel said in an email.
On Oct. 24, Milstein received an email from Pepco Regional Vice President Jerry Pasternak saying he was told by a reporter, whom he did not identify, that Pepco was invited. That same day Milstein told Pasternak the utility was not welcome at the private event.
Powerupmontco, Milstein said, is nothing more than a Gmail address, run by her, a stay-at-home mom. Through the address, she sends emails about rate cases, government decisions and voting records that affect power distribution to about 300 people. Powerupmontco is not a registered nonprofit and does not accept contributions or have a website.
Beyond being threatened, Milstein said, others have questioned if the forum violates sunshine laws by not welcoming the public.
As a private group, Powerupmontco can host elected officials and not be required to invite the public, she said.
The only law dictating attendance is county fire code.
Milstein said 60 people can fit in the room reserved for the forum before it violates fire code. So far, she has 40 confirmed to attend, including volunteers from Powerupmontco and AARP of Maryland, the forum’s sponsor, as well as members of the media.
Tammy Bresnahan, AARP of Maryland’s advocacy director, said her organization provided funds to rent the room and to print informational materials for the candidates.
Representatives of the utility questioned AARP’s role in the forum, and how Milstein can exclude the utility, Bresnahan said.
Bresnahan noted that Pepco hosts its own events for lawmakers and does not include groups like Powerupmontco or AARP.
“These utility companies have these events during the [General Assembly] session. They will take legislative committees to dinner and lunch and we never get invited,” she said. “There is not much difference in what we are doing.”
When asked if she knew why Pepco wanted to attend her forum, Milstein said she wished she knew.
“I know we have a utility company in the bottom quartile in reliability in the nation,” she said. “When you have a company performing at such a low level, and you have got citizens and ratepayers not getting what they are paying for, there is a lot of frustration on a lot of sides here.”
As for the forum, it will be held as planned and security will be on hand, Milstein said.