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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Utilities win again in tree-trimming investigation

Friday, April 29, 2011

To the Editor:

Secrecy and the clout of the special interests outweigh the public good.

For the third year, elected officials have blocked utility reform. And, the agency overseeing the utility tree trimming investigation, the IURC, has seen serious ethical lapses with former employees now under State and possibly federal investigation.

Lax oversight as reported in The Indianapolis Star editorial "Pricey toll for lax oversight" on April 16 is not a problem exclusively with problems at the IURC lie with the state legislature and the governor. They have effectively tied the hands of the IURC denying them the ability to keep all utility customers fully informed and preventing the IURC from enforcing its own rules. Now under new leadership, will the IURC establish higher ethical standards and give the public equal consideration and rights versus the power of the special interest groups?

The legislature and the governor's administration, who have been repeatedly warned of serious utility problems by the Indiana Tree Alliance, have chosen to remain silent, knowing the current tree-trimming investigation by the IURC cannot fix many of the problems.

The legislature and the governor, to date, have not given the IURC the statutory authority they need to ensure the public is well informed. Some 3.5 to four million Hoosiers remain uninformed about a statewide tree-trimming investigation and the current rule making by the IURC -- rule making that will define a homeowner's property rights versus the utility's rights to trim and remove trees on private property near overhead electrical lines.

Further, the IURC will not be able to enforce its own vegetation management rules now being created. Instead, a voluntary honor code has been adopted. If a utility does indeed damage property, as before, the only means of recourse will be "a civil action" in court which most homeowners statewide cannot afford. This is the method most preferred by the utilities as they know their economic power can intimidate most property owners in any legal action. Consequently, the utilities win by economic default.

Are the millions of lobbying dollars spent by the electric utility industry (utility billpayers' dollars) and the thousands of dollars given to both parties in campaign donations influencing the lack of legislative action by all parties and the lack of leadership on this topic by the governor?

The right of all Hoosiers to know what is happening and why, and to participate in this statewide utility tree-trimming investigation has been seriously compromised in the absence of full disclosure from the utilities. Have campaign donations tilted legislation toward the utilities?

Must more homeowners seek expensive legal help to recover utility damages, curb outdated easements or respond to undisclosed utility easement restrictions on their properties? Will homeowners get relief or will they too be told, "Take this to court yourself -- no state governmental agency or commission has the statutory authority to help you?"

One group in central Indiana has asked the state's attorney general for help due to the lack of full disclosure of severe utility restrictions before they built their homes in an upscale housing development.

Do homeowners know what utility restrictions are imposed upon their property by the gas, electric, water, cable and/or telephone companies? Do property owners know where easements sit in conjunction with their property lines?

Are Hoosiers concerned, angry or just plain disappointed that information about restrictions on property, IURC rule making and the investigation itself has been kept quiet?

If so they need to contact their state senator and state representative and ask why they have done nothing to fix this problem. Will their representatives now support a legislative review this summer? We hope so ... stay tuned.

Charlie Goodman

Co-founder

Indiana Tree Alliance