Public Service Commission's new rules draw concerns about open meetings in Georgia

They decide if utility rates will go up, increasing gas and electric bills. Now, the Public Service Commission can decide whether to bar participants from attending a meeting. It’s all thanks to a new public comment rule.

The commission, in theory, can kick anyone out of a meeting at any time if commissioners so choose. A spokesman says the board implemented the rule to maintain order in meetings that are often standing room only. However, critics say it could stifle the public’s voice on critical matters.

"They’re proposing to limit public attendance, said Gregory Lisby, Professor Emeritus at Georgia State University and an expert on Georgia communication law.

When asked if the policy could bar some members of the public from attending meetings in which the committee decides on rates, Lisby answered, "Yes, very possibly yes."

Lisby says the policy runs afoul of Georgia’s open meetings' law.

"To my mind this rule does violate the Georgia Open Meetings Act, Lisby said. "The purpose is so that the public can be in attendance. It discourages public attendance. It does not necessarily discourage public input."

"They are a public service commission with the emphasis on public," said Gerry Weber, a constitutional civil rights lawyer. "The Public Service Commission can exclude all members of the public who are not party to the hearing."


When asked if the rule discourages public participation and transparency, Weber responded, "Absolutely. All persons who are not parties to a hearing would be escorted out and would not be able to attend the hearing. Even if they’re members of the public and have a lot of interest in what’s happening. The open meetings act requires these meetings be open to the public and second, the Georgia courts have said you can’t exclude some members of the public and not others."

Tom Krause, a spokesman for the commission, insists the public comment policy actually increases public input.

"We’ve actually expanded the amount of day the public can come and make it a little easier on their schedule. If our hearing run Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, they can come in on a Wednesday or Thursday if they can’t make it on the first day and have their say," Krause said.

Krause says meetings at times can get too crowded. He says there are lawyers and policy experts who need to attend the hearing in a room with limited space.

"It’s a very crowded room. And these people have to be there legally," Krause said.

When asked if the commission has asked anyone to leave, Krause responded, "No."

Commissioners can ask anyone to leave a meeting if a meeting gets too crowded or if members of the public become disruptive. Meetings can be watched on its website, on YouTube, or in the commission lobby.