Rate hikes have slowed to a trickle compared with the years before Weeks and Jennings took office, as have rate requests. One example of how Weeks has helped rewrite utility company mathematics: The state's four biggest utilities, APS, Tucson Electric Power, Southwest Gas Corporation, and US West, wangled rate increases totaling 169 percent in the six years prior to Weeks' election. In the six years since she took office, rate hikes for the same four companies have totaled less than 25 percent, under the national rate of inflation.
APS, which upped its rates nearly 50 percent in the five years preceding Weeks' election, has been granted less than 10 percent in rate hikes during Weeks' term. APS officials once strolled before the commission, as confident of getting what they wanted as if they were dropping off a grocery order to be filled. Those same officials now sweat under a barrage of incisive questions from Weeks, in particular, and have been granted fewer than half the increases they've sought during her term.
"I've said `no' to over $355 million in rate requests from the Big Four," Weeks says. The savings to APS customers--business and residential--exceed $150 million. Last year US West tried to argue it needed a $122 million rate increase, but wound up limping away with a rate decrease of $37 million. "In the past, the utilities always submitted inflated rate hikes for the commission to sign off on, but we go way beyond their built-in cushion and examine their claims so thoroughly that we end up cutting it to the bone," Weeks says.
When Weeks walks into a hearing, observers say, she's informed, interested and aggressive. "She's read everything on a case and it's obvious she's asked a lot of questions before she even gets into the hearing room," says Doug Brooks, RUCO executive director. "She's very conversant with all the technical issues, and covers a broad range in her questions. My impression is that she's the hardest working of the three commissioners."
Before Weeks and Jennings were elected, consumer advocates commonly encountered inattention, incompetence and outright hostility on the commission, says former RUCO director Susan Williams. Republican and former commissioner Marianne Jennings, for instance, used to wile away hearings proofing galleys for her latest book (she's written several business texts). Jennings, no relation to Renz Jennings, has since been given a seat on the board of PinWest, APS' parent company.
Nor was Marianne Jennings' flaky behavior exceptional--more than one former commission official perused the daily newspapers while sitting as a hearing officer in cases. Under commission rules, a hearing officer has much the same responsibilities as a judge, hearing testimony and recommending rate decisions to the full commission.
"Marcia is attentive and keenly present, and that is made clear from the depth of her questions," Williams says. "RUCO was not always happy with her decisions, but you had the sense she really listens."
Castillo dismisses Williams' comments, saying, "She and Weeks are personal friends." Weeks and Williams both deny his assertion, and indeed, this may be one of the few times in the commission's 78-year history that no cozy friendships exist between the regulators and those who appear before them.
The significance of Weeks' accomplishments is fully apparent only when contrasted with the antics of preceding commissions: APS and other utilities shuttled in and out of commission headquarters with new rate requests annually, and sometimes twice a year. Much of the discussion on those cases occurred in closed-door meetings between utility topsiders and sympathetic commissioners, meetings which excluded commissioners who refused to play along.
The public--and Attorney General Bob Corbin--began taking serious notice of what was going on inside the squat gray building at 1200 West Washington in 1981, with a string of shocking revelations about the incestuous relationship between the commission and regulated utilities. Largely because of the whistle-blowing of Weeks' husband Jim, then the lone Democrat on the commission, the public learned that then-commissioners Bud Tims and Diane McCarthy were about to rubber-stamp a rate hike decision that had been drafted, in its entirety, by the utility seeking the rate hike.
Corbin filed suit against the commission after failing to persuade Tims and McCarthy to throw out the case, involving Tucson Electric Power, and insist on a new application. Tims and McCarthy subsequently retained a lawyer whose firm had represented TEP for 25 years, to defend them in the suit brought by Corbin.
About the same time, Tims' long-standing family friendship with TEP lobbyist Gerald Murphy became public, as did under-the-table campaign contributions from TEP to a third Republican candidate, Clark Dierks. Jim Weeks, a longtime labor leader in Arizona, also charged that TEP president Theodore Welp had attempted to derail Weeks' opposition to a proposed power plant by promising to use union labor on the job.