SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- To the outrage of consumer advocates, Gov. Jon Huntsman has fired the director of the Utah Committee of Consumer Services and replaced him with a former phone company lobbyist.
Roger Ball had spent eight years as director of the consumer services committee, which was established to represents the interests for residents, small businesses and farms in utility cases before the PSC.
Some of the utilities, their largest customers and their friends in the Legislature have felt the committee was too effective, that it had a disproportionate influence on the PSC, and there have been multiple attempts to get rid of it.
Ball will be replaced by former US West (now Qwest) Community Relations Manager Leslie Reberg, a Democrat.
Her prior employment with phone company will not change the adversarial relationship between the committee and the utilities, she said.
"I'm a fighter," she said. "I don't see that changing."
Just before noon Wednesday, Ball was summoned by state commerce director Russell Skousen, given 30 minutes to clear out his desk and escorted from his office.
Ball said he has not decided whether to contest it.
"There are many and varied interests out there who are doing their best to handicap the committee. If you can march someone with eight years of knowledge and understanding and responsibility out the door on 30 minutes notice, you can seriously impact the committee's ability to function," Ball said.
Chairman Dee Jay Hammon said committee members should have been consulted before Ball was fired.
By not doing so, the governor has compromised the committee's autonomy and its ability to represent customers in ongoing utility disputes, Hammon said.
Skousen said that while the committee is independent on policy matters, it is not immune from government oversight. He said the committee gets to approve the hiring -- but not the firing -- of its director.
"This is not about Roger. This is about what we need, the Huntsman administration, to advocate our policies," Skousen said. "We believe we can get somebody in there who can be more effective."
Consumer watchdog Claire Geddes said, "The governor has just slapped the face of every consumer. Utility rates are spiraling up and now we have no one to represent us."
Reberg has held several administrative jobs in Salt Lake County government, including chief of staff for two commissioners and director of community support services and economic development.
In behalf of the phone company, she helped lobby the 2000 Legislature to limit how much the Public Service Commission can lower telephone rates.
Skousen said someone familiar with the telephone industry knows "the pressure points" and "will have more leverage in negotiations."
Reberg said Huntsman's willingness to appoint "a loudmouth Democrat" to the consumer service job is proof that his goal is not to dictate its positions.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)