In Frustrated Sun City, Corporation Commission Candidates Duck Tough Questions

Candidates for the Arizona Corporation Commission trotted out campaign boilerplate material Monday night before an audience of deeply frustrated Sun City residents.
Candidates for the Arizona Corporation Commission trotted out campaign boilerplate material Monday night before an audience of deeply frustrated Sun City residents. Elizabeth Whitman/Phoenix New Times
Sun City residents came to a candidate forum on Monday night hoping to learn how four people seeking seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission would curb their rising water bills.

Instead, the candidates dodged serious questions and delivered stump speeches. One GOP candidate compared setting utility rates to making peanut butter sandwiches.

Many people in Sun City, an unincorporated retirement community west of Phoenix, are on fixed incomes, and are deeply frustrated with the very real effects that Corporation Commission decisions have had on their lives. Wastewater rate increases kicked in in July. Now, they’re facing the looming prospect of upcoming rate hikes for regular water as the utility company EPCOR tries to consolidate a number of separate water districts.

The final decision on that consolidation case rests with the Corporation Commission, and, depending on when the case is heard, might be voted on by the very candidates who sat before Sun City residents on Monday.

On November 6, Arizona voters will check boxes next to two of the four candidates: Democrats Sandra Kennedy and Kiana Maria Sears, and Republicans Justin Olson and Rodney Glassman.

The Commission is one of the most important but under-recognized branches of state government. Those who have heard of the five-member body probably know of it because it sets utility rates — that is, your water, electricity, and gas bills — or because of the corruption scandals that have dogged it in recent years.

Monday's forum was held in a cavernous gymnasium-auditorium at the Sundial Center. One woman had brought her knitting. Occasionally, murmured conversations within the audience grew too loud, and someone else would spew an audible, “Shhhhhhh!”

Glenna Lober, an eight-year resident of Sun City, coaxed her husband to join her at the forum on Monday night. They’d come to the same forum during the previous election, but it left him jaded and disenchanted with politicians and the Corporation Commission. Still, Lober wanted to attend.

“We’re here because of the rates that are going up,” Lober said. “You can’t plan ahead for this kind of cost-of-living increase.” She and her husband are on fixed incomes, and if water rates increase, it’d mean cutting back on pleasures like going out to eat, she said.

As Lober spoke, her husband, who didn’t want to be named and said he didn’t want to be involved in the article, continually interjected. “People here said they’d vote for Sun City. Then, they turned around and did the opposite,” he said of the candidates who had spoken two years ago. “I like politicians who do what they say they’re going to do, not the opposite.”

Greg Eisert, the chair of government affairs at the Sun City Home Owners Association, who moderated the forum, asked the candidates a series of increasingly complex questions. What began as straightforward queries with obvious answers soon turned into demanding responses with actual expertise, and the candidates did not always deliver.

“People here said they’d vote for Sun City. Then, they turned around and did the opposite." — Sun City resident

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For example: Would candidates accept donations from any organization the commission has domain over? (Answering “yes” would have been political suicide; the correct answer was, clearly, an emphatic “NO”). That question was a softball, especially compared to later, denser probes like, should the administrative law judges who preside over rate case hearings be employees of the Corporation Commission, and why or why not?

In those cases, most of the time, the candidates fell back on their default campaign messaging. Often, they didn't even answer the question. After Eisert asked about administrative law judges, for instance, the candidates had other things to say.

Olson, the only current commissioner among the candidates, said, “It is ultimately the commission that answers to you,” not the administrative law judges. Sears said that the commissioners, not the administrative law judges, were the problem. Glassman returned to one of his motifs of the night: his proposal for the Corporation Commission to be bound by the Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct. Kennedy proposed that administrative law judges rotate cases, so that the cases receive “fresh eyes.”

Eisert asked other questions tailored to specific issues in Sun City, which has roughly 40,000 people with a median household income of $37,059, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In June 2017, the Corporation Commission voted to approve EPCOR, the water utility in Sun City, to consolidate five wastewater districts into one, so that each district would eventually pay the same rate.

The Sun City Home Owners Association has appealed the decision, and rate increases kicked in this July, from what was $27.13 per month to what will eventually be $38.59. In other districts, like Anthem, Agua Fria, and Mohave, rates will fall from around $60 a month.

Eisert asked the candidates to explain how “a subsidizing rate design that saddles one group of customers with a huge portion of the costs caused by another groups can be just, reasonable or nondiscriminatory.” The candidates were quick to criticize the Corporation Commission's decision, and, in an odd turn, Olson took a detour and started talking about the "failed policies" of California.

Eisert also asked candidates to explain, in layman’s terms, the principle that the “cost-causer should be the cost-payer.”

That’s when the peanut butter moment happened. Sears was the first to respond, offering a vague call for lowering rates and keeping them sustainable. Glassman was next, and he took the guideline “in layman’s terms” to heart.

“Ratemaking should not look like someone making a peanut butter sandwich, and spreading it out as far as you can, as thin as you can, and inadvertently charging everyone more,” Glassman said. “Once you’ve paid for the demand that you created and once you’ve paid for that infrastructure, it would be unfair, unfair, to then charge you more for no reason other than someone else wants to have a peanut butter sandwich.”

The metaphor could use some refining, but it elicited laughter and applause from the audience — and was a relief from the candidates' repetitive campaign messages.

Sears completely wore out the phrase “hard-working ratepayers of Arizona.” For Olson, it was “before I got to the Commission” — he would have voted differently on numerous issues, he claims. Kennedy repeatedly trotted out, “The buck stops with me” (The context varied with each iteration, making it unclear what she was referring to.) Glassman touted his code of judicial conduct plan every chance he got.

For the candidates, the night might have seemed like a good chance to rehash arguments they’d made elsewhere, to repeat the same messages that they’ve put out in media interviews and in debates. But for Sun City residents, rising utility rates are a tangible hardship, not a talking point.

"I use less than 2,000 gallons a month. I don't have a dishwasher. I try very hard to be very conservative with everything, because I want to pay my bills," said one woman. She declined to give her name but described herself as a "dissatisfied" Sun City resident whose Social Security check "just doesn't cut it."

If Sun City's water rates go up, the woman added, "I'll have to cut back on everything: food, medicine, even seeing the doctor." 
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.