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Commissioners choose Doug Little as interim chairman

State utility regulators chose Doug Little Tuesday to be at least the interim chief of the Arizona Corporation Commission to replace Susan Bitter Smith who is resigning.  (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

State utility regulators chose Doug Little Tuesday to be at least the interim chief of the Arizona Corporation Commission to replace Susan Bitter Smith who is resigning. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

The four remaining members of the Arizona Corporation Commission on Tuesday chose Doug Little as interim chairman of the panel — and the likely permanent replacement for Susan Bitter Smith.

The vote came after commission members Bob Burns and Bob Stump said it would be improper to choose the chairman for the coming year before Gov. Doug Ducey names a replacement for Bitter Smith. Her last day is Monday.

An aide to the governor said Tuesday afternoon the decision is still “under consideration.”

So the commissioners voted to have Little assume the helm on an acting basis, beginning this coming Tuesday. Then, after Ducey finally acts, there will be another vote, this time with the new member participating.

Commissioner Bob Burns said that’s only fair.

“Voting for chairman of the commission is a very important vote for all the members of this commission,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Out of respect for Gov. Ducey and the individual he appoints, I believe we should give the new member and courtesy to be present to vote for the new chairman because he or she will be serving with that individual.”

And Burns said naming an interim chairman, effective next Tuesday, allows Bitter Smith, who has chaired the panel for the past year, a chance to finish out her year-long term.

But it really won’t matter who Ducey names — or what that person wants.

Little already has the endorsement of Tom Forese, with whom he ran as a ticket in the 2014 election. And Burns committed to vote for Little when the time comes.

That guarantees him three votes on the five-member panel. And Little acknowledged after the meeting he does want the post on more than an interim basis.

But he refused to say after the meeting what will be his priorities as chairman.

“I think maybe it would be more appropriate to have that conversation when we actually have the full commission populated,” he said.

The position comes with some power beyond actually running the meeting. Whoever chairs the panel also sets the agenda.

The move comes because Bitter Smith chose to resign rather than fight a lawsuit by Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who charged she is ineligible to be elected in 2012 and is currently holding office illegally. He contends that her outside employment as head of the Southwest Cable Communications Association and as a lobbyist for Cox Communications are an illegal conflict of interest in her $79,500-a-year role as a utility regulator.

Bitter Smith argues that any outside work she does affects only cable services, which are not regulated by the commission, and not any phone services some of these companies provide. But she opted to resign, saying the lawsuit and media attention have become a distraction from the commission’s work.

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