Do You Know Who Holds the Power (and the Air, and the Heat, and the Water…)?

By Jacqui Patterson

Tomorrow, November 8th, is Election Day and all eyes are on the high-stakes races that will determine which party controls Congress. Few are paying attention to local races for Public Service Commissions (PSC) or Public Utility Commissions. But these races have an outsized impact on our lives.

Whether you are electing a commissioner to join your Public Utilities/Public Service Commission, or you are electing a Governor who will appoint these commissioners, take heed. These commissions are critical to the accessibility and affordability of our water, energy, internet, and transportation — as well as the quality of our air and water.

Public Utilities/Public Service Commissions hold vast decision-making responsibilities and power over the energy, water, telecommunications, and sometimes transportation resources that are generated and consumed in our communities.

But who are the people who make up these Commissions? Do they really have the best interest of communities at heart? Do they truly understand the needs of communities most impacted by fluctuating utility costs, proximity to unhealthy power plants, and crumbling infrastructure?

A timely new report, Who Holds the Power: Demystifying and Democratizing Public Utilities Commissions demystifies these critical entities, whose missions are tied to our environmental and economic health. Importantly, it shows how we can ensure that Public Utilities/Public Service Commissions reflect and represent the interests of those they serve.

We know that environmental and economic crises disproportionately impact communities of color, women, people with disabilities, children, elders, and people who are LGBTQIA. These groups have been historically, systemically marginalized. However, Who Holds the Power reveals that:

· A significant majority — 65% — of Public Utility Commissioners identify as men

· Six states have all-male PUCs

· Nearly half of all states have PUCs with no commissioners of color

· A mere 8 states have PUCs with more than one commissioner of color

· Commissioners from several states have ties to fossil fuels — wielding significant influence within one of the very industries they regulate

The keys to advancing equity and inclusion in the PUCs/PSCs are directly tied to representational governance. When the commissioners occupying those seats truly see themselves as accountable to the people, the public wins. Armed with this new report, communities can rise up, get involved, hold these officials accountable, and “be the change we want to see in the world.

Jacqueline Patterson, MSW, MPH, is the Founder and Executive Director of the Chisholm Legacy Project: A Resource Hub for Black Frontline Climate Justice Leadership. The mission of the Chisholm Legacy Project is rooted in a Just Transition Framework, serving as a vehicle to connect Black communities on the frontlines of climate justice with the resources to actualize visions. Prior to the launch of the Chisholm Legacy Project, Patterson served as the Senior Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program for over a decade. Patterson holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Maryland and a Master’s degree in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University.

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