Sunday’s forum with three Democratic candidates for Arizona Corporation Commission wasn’t so much a look forward as it was a look back.
The three candidates — Sandra Kennedy, Bill Mundell and Kiana Sears — repeatedly brought up issues with the all-Republican commission stretching back to 2014.
Kennedy and Mundell, who have known each other for more than 30 years, are running as a team seeking the two Democratic primary spots. Former commissioner Paul Newman announced at the forum that he likely wouldn't get enough signatures by this month’s deadline and is dropping out of the race. Democrat Jake Bell dropped out May 15.
Sears, a former ACC employee and current Mesa Public Schools board member, held her own despite being the odd person out as Mundell and Kennedy played off each other.
But it was issues with the board over the past several years that drew the most reaction from the crowd.
APS and elections
The ACC is facing criticism after utility APS and its parent company, Pinnacle West, poured millions of dollars into two elections that ended with the ouster of Kennedy (2014) and Mundell (2016). The five-member board then handed APS millions of dollars in rate increases.
The donations are legal but questions about dark money campaign contributions — where the donor isn't named — have hung over the ACC and APS. APS has neither confirmed nor denied it was behind the 2014 donations, but financial disclosures show it spent more than $3.5 million on the 2016 race to get an all-GOP board.
One of the GOP board members, Bob Burns, opposes the dark money contributions. But his efforts to subpoena corporate executives hit a wall when the other four board members refused to enforce them. A judge says that's legal because the state Constitution establishes the Arizona Corporation Commission as a separate branch of government, which means it can set its own rules. The judge said he lacked the legal authority to make the board act in Burns' favor.
The board has had other issues over the past several years:
•Longtime GOP board member Gary Pierce was indicted in 2017 on federal bribery charges involving a land purchase at below-market price in exchange for a new policy that benefited small-utility owners.
•Hundreds of texts from GOP board member Bob Stump's cell phone during the 2014 election prompted a year of questions surrounding possible improper campaigning. Stump deleted the texts to the head of a dark-money group believed to have been funded by APS during that election, and to GOP candidates Tom Forese and Doug Little, who won seats. Stump said he tossed out the phone because it was broken. A judge determined that a forensic search of Stump's new phone, which turned up no evidence, was good enough and ended the case in May 2016. The new phone was searched to see what may have transferred from the old. Stump is no longer on the board.
•ACC Chair Susan Bitter Smith, a Republican, resigned in December 2015 after a conflict of interest charge arose tied to her job as an executive with a cable communications group.
“I am running because the monopolies have taken over the ACC,” Kennedy said Sunday in addressing the controversies. “I’ve dubbed it the 'corruption commission,' not the Corporation Commission.”
Sears, who worked as a public utility analyst for the ACC, said she had “many years of disappointment when I saw our commissioners rule against the public.”
The Arizona Corporation Commission sets rates and policies for electric, water and gas utilities, and oversees railroad crossings, pipeline safety, power-line siting and securities regulation. It also balances business interests with what’s fair to consumers.
All three candidates said they would endorse the eventual winner of the Democratic primary; believe climate change is the result of human activity; support requiring electric utilities to generate 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025; and say the current ACC is “corrupt.”
All three also are stumped that Arizona hasn’t made solar energy a priority.
Kennedy, who served four years on the ACC, said that of the 37 states with renewable energy standards, “Arizona’s is the lowest, unfortunately.” New Jersey is the leader, she said.
“We have sun consistently, we ought to be putting it to work here,” she said, adding, “The monopolies don’t want it; they want to continue with fossil fuels.”
Sears says the entire battle over solar “is about money.”
Mundell, a former longtime Republican ACC board member who left the party after President Trump was elected, said APS helped elect commissioners “who are anti-solar. Why did they do that? Because we (Mundell and Kennedy) had a history of standing up to them.”
All three agree that water remains a big issue in Arizona.
“The water infrastructure in Arizona is in crisis,” Sears said, adding that there are aquifers we haven’t tapped into.
She also said water conservation needs to be promoted, and that pecans and alfalfa are using too much water and perhaps should be dumped. That earned a gasp from the audience of about 100, followed by a smattering of applause.
When moderator Dylan Smith of TucsonSentinel.com revisited the question, Sears said, “It’s time companies pay the price to do business here… Right now, they’re not paying the price.” The comment was in reference to tiered water rates — the more you use, the more you pay.
Mundell said a tiered rate structure “encourages people to conserve, it also encourages businesses to conserve,” and said it’s OK to use the ACC as a “bully pulpit” in those cases.
Kennedy said the board has “the ability as commissioners to institute conservation.”
In closing remarks, Kennedy urged voters to flip their ballots, acknowledging the ACC race gets little attention.
“I’m going to ask you to start at the bottom of the ballot and work your way to the top,” she said.
Sears played off her role as a lone candidate.
“I’ve been able to qualify for this race as a one-woman show,” she said. “I have the guts, I have the grit and I have the fresh voice that you need.”
Dan Shearer | 547-9770