January 29, 2023

The cooling towers of the Plant Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant under construction in 2019 in Waynesboro, Georgia.

The cooling towers of the Plant Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant under construction in 2019 in Waynesboro, Georgia.
photo: Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle (AP)

Georgia is having an incredibly heated, competitive election right now. And no, it’s not for a Senate seat — but it’s got just as many twists and turns as the race that’s in the national spotlight.

Georgia’s Public Utility Commission election has spiraled into a jumble of delays and lawsuits, including a voting rights challenge and a lawsuit by a candidate who claims the other blocked them on Twitter. The various controversies have advanced what should be one November vote indefinitely in the future, leaving control to the all-Republican list of incumbents for the time being.

The phrase “Civil Service Commission Election” is usually enough to put the average voter to sleep. But this choice will determine who helps govern the elected body that oversees Georgia’s utilities — including Georgia Power, one of the largest energy supplier in the country. The people elected to these positions will be responsible for making policy decisions that can directly affect the tariffs Georgians pay on their electricity bills and the state’s use of renewable energy and fossil fuels.

As we reported in July, this choice was met with some controversy early on. Last summer, Patty Durand, a longtime energy advocate, began campaigning for the District 2 PSC seat against incumbent Tim Echols, who has served at the PSC since 2011. Released a redrawn map of PSC districts, moved from Durand’s home address became District 2 to District 4, making her unable to face off against Echols.

suspicion Since the redistricting process was lazy, Durand filed a lawsuit. In May, just days before the election, emails were leaked between Echols and the PSC commissioner to Durand’s lawyers, revealing that the two had conspired to redraw county lines to specifically exclude Durand’s home address.

“The only real reason the districts were messing around was to drop the nominee,” Brionte McCorkle, executive director of the nonprofit Georgia Conservation Voters, told Earther in July. “The population shift wasn’t that pronounced. They didn’t have to go out of their way to take down Patty.”

In August, a judge ruled in favor of Durand’s challenge to residency requirements, allowing her to run against Echols on the ballot in November’s election. But a day later, a separate judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in another lawsuit filed in 2020, which claims that the way the PSC conducts elections illegally dilutes black votes.

Because PSC elections are held nationwide for district positions, the plaintiffs’ group (which includes McCorkle) argues, people who don’t live in the districts where candidates actually run can vote for them, which has contributed to low numbers of black people being elected PSC commissioners, even in counties with large black populations. The ruling ended PSC elections in November when the state appealed. There’s a chance the court could force the l this monthLegislatures to completely rewrite the rules for how the PSC operates, to force the state to hold elections by district only and potentially redraw districts — and potentially toss out both the Durand and Echols nominations.

To complicate matters further, social media is being dragged into this mess. Late last month, Durand filed a lawsuit against Echols for blocking them on Twitter and Facebook. The lawsuit alleges that Echols’ failure to allow her to view his social media feeds violates her rights to free speech. While this may sound like a minor controversy, lawsuits about elected officials blocking voters from accessing their social media have increased in recent years and a murky legal minefield. The ACLU maintains a flow chart to determine whether blocking by a public figure constitutes a violation of the law.

“Officials use public platforms to communicate about their duties. He can’t block critics if he doesn’t like what they’re saying,” Durand told Earther. “Part of my job as a candidate is making sure voters know what Commissioner Echols is doing. Exposing his file is a high priority for me.”

echoes said Georgia Public Radio last month that he “usually blocks[s] anyone using profanity or posting explicit messages on their feed;” he provided no examples however, encouraged the outlet to search Durand’s timeline. Georgia Public Broadcasting noted that Echols warmly responded to “at least two” tweets from other accounts with profanity; Earther could find it one of these interactions. (“I don’t use profanity,” Durand told Earther. “I might have said SHIT once or twice, but not to him — he had to say something. That’s just a made-up reason.” Georgia Public Broadcasting could find the two of Durand’s 4,500 tweets containing the word “damn” and two containing “shit”, none of which were directed at Echols.)

Earther turned to Echols to ask him about Durand’s lawsuit against him and the upcoming election. A spokesman told us Echols had not commented on the election lawsuit and “still working on his legal representation, whether represented by state or private counsel,” in Durand’s lawsuit. “At this time, he intends to seek re-election,” the spokesman wrote.

All of this may seem a little ridiculous and overkill, but Georgia is the jumping off point for several crucial energy talks, including the slow, much troubled start the nation’s only nuclear power plant currently under construction. The people who ultimately win this election will be responsible for overseeing a number of important matters such as: B. Dealing with the hitherto slow introduction of rooftop solar systems by the state. A Public Service Commission election might not garner as much attention as a Senate election—utility politics can be incredibly boring, even for people like me who cover it regularly—but it’s a deeply underappreciated position to have one a lot of power. And officials who have conspired in certain ways to retain control of a state’s utilities should be given more attention.

Durand isn’t sure what the future holds in terms of the election itself, but she’s confident about the social media lawsuit.

“I expect to win this case,” she said. “When he blocked me, it closed my voice and it was a clear violation of my right to free speech to participate in a public forum. That’s what social media is – a public forum for discussion.”

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