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Regulators want answers on APS summer disconnections

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Arizona Public Service CEO Don Brandt will be on the hot seat September 4 when utility regulators are expected to probe further into the company’s disconnection practices and the death of a Sun City West woman whose power was cut off. 

Brandt has already answered in writing a slew of questions the Arizona Corporation Commission put to him in advance of the hearing, but he gave all answers directly related to the 2018 heat-related death of Stephanie Pullman, 72, under seal and only for the eyes of commissioners and staff. 

The public was left in the dark on all the details of why Pullman’s power was even shut off only two days after she had paid $125 of her final bill. 

Brandt, who recently announced plans to retire in November, did reveal that Pullman’s unpaid $51 bill was $1 more than the maximum delinquent amount allowed at the time under APS policy. 

He gave this stock answer for all questions mentioning Pullman as well as other families who had suffered a death and had settled with APS: 

“The Commission’s rules do not permit APS to discuss customer specific information publicly. The confidential response has been provided to Commissioners and Staff under separate cover.” 

Commissioners intend to ask additional questions when Brandt appears before them. 

Commissioner Lea Marquez Peterson, a Republican, said she wants to work with attorneys and her fellow commissioners to waive the rules to make sure the public can see how the case is handled. 

“We will have to make changes to policy to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said. 

Stacey Champion, an activist and frequent critic of APS and the Corporation Commission, said that the commission staff was able to provide customer specific information in its report on Pullman’s death and that privacy laws do not cover the deceased.

Commissioner Justin Olson said an attorney would have to evaluate what exactly the law allows in that instance. 

Olson said he thinks this information should be shared publicly, but he knows customer information is protected under the law. 

“I have a lot of additional questions that I look forward to addressing at the meeting next week,” he said.

Commissioner Boyd Dunn plans to address other concerns at the special open meeting, while calling this “the beginning of many meaningful conversations and policy changes in the hope a tragedy like this will never happen again.”

“I intend to ask questions about APS disconnection procedures, what actions were taken in the Pullman case, and how we can improve our rules to be sure Arizona utility customers are afforded safe and reliable energy,” Dunn said. “It is my hope Mr. Brandt comes prepared to answer these issues on Wednesday.”

Commissioner Sandra Kennedy, through a representative, said she will hold off on speaking publicly on the matter until the meeting. 

Olson said he was surprised to learn from Brandt’s written answers that APS would cut a customer’s power for a past due amount of $50 or more. 

“[$50] seems to be a very low threshold. We have since adopted emergency rules to make it slightly higher, but we will continue to discuss what it should be for permanent rules,” Olson said. 

Under the emergency rules that are in effect until October 15, APS cannot disconnect a residential customer with an outstanding balance of $75 or less.

In addition to the answers under seal, Olson and Chairman Bob Burns took issue with Brandt’s reasons why there have been no in-person interactions with customers when going to their home to leave a disconnect notice on a door hanger, as is what supposedly happened with Pullman last year.

Brandt said third-party contractors and APS employees don’t interact with customers when placing a disconnect notice at the residence, because customers have “sometimes threatened and even injured employees or contractors when told their power is at risk of disconnection for non-payment.” So APS now instructs the person delivering the door hanger to not knock on the door or ring doorbells. 

Burns told Capitol Media Services that that answer does not sit well with him.

“There needs to be a process that has actual face-to-face contact,” he said. “People don’t even come to the front door … they drive their car into a parking position, whether it’s a carport or a garage and they enter the house from the side doors.” 

While Brandt did not comment publicly on Pullman’s case it was recently revealed that her family reached an agreement with APS, but no details were provided.

The family’s attorney, John Brewer, filed a notice to the Corporation Commission’s docket August 26 to provide the public with the information and asking that their privacy be respected.

“On behalf of the family, we hope that this statement will conclude this matter and any further inquiries regarding the same,” Brewer wrote. 

Pullman paid parts of her final bill on September 5,, 2018, but her power was shut off two days later when it was 107 degrees, and one week after the disconnection, a posse member with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office found Pullman dead in her bed.

A medical examiner determined the cause of death was attributable to “environmental heat exposure” with the main cause heart failure. 

Capitol Media Services’ Howard Fischer contributed to this report.

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