Missouri consumer advocate is fired

John Coffman, a former Sixth Ward councilman, criticized state initiatives.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:10 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The state’s official consumer advocate has been fired by Republican Gov. Matt Blunt’s administration after a legislative session in which he criticized “the anti-consumer initiatives” backed by Blunt and Republican lawmakers.

John Coffman said Tuesday that he was given no reason for his sudden dismissal late Monday by Blunt’s director of the Department of Economic Development. The department announced Tuesday that regulatory law judge Lewis Mills Jr. had been named the state’s new public counsel but made no mention of Coffman.

“It was a shock, but in a way it’s not too surprising, given some of the anti-consumer initiatives that have taken place under the new administration,” Coffman said Tuesday as he cleaned out his state office.

During the session that ended Friday, the Republican-led General Assembly passed bills relaxing regulation of local telephone companies and making it easier for electric, natural gas and water companies to pass along their costs to consumers through rate increases.

Coffman opposed both pieces of legislation.

Blunt has made economic development one of his top priorities and specifically called for an overhaul of state telecommunications regulation in his State of the State speech at the start of the legislative session in January.

Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson said Mills was better equipped to advance Blunt’s goal of creating an entrepreneurial climate in Missouri.

A spokesman for the Department of Economic Development declined to say directly whether Coffman was fired because of his opposition to the telephone and utility legislation.

“It’s a new era for creating jobs and bringing business to Missouri while at the same time protecting consumers,” spokesman Paul Sloca said. Department director “Greg Steinhoff thought that Mr. Mills fit the bill.”

Steinhoff said in a statement that Mills would be “a strong advocate for Missouri’s consumers.”

But state Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, asserted that is exactly what got Coffman fired. She called his dismissal “unconscionable.”

“This governor and his Republican majority just doesn’t want the little folks or the average folks speaking up at all,” said Bray, one of two senators who voted against both the telephone and utility bills. “I’m just outraged. Consumers just seem to get in the way, and they don’t have to be listened to or acknowledged or even have a decent representation now, apparently.”

The Office of Public Counsel is charged with representing the interests of utility customers in cases before the Missouri Public Service Commission, focusing primarily on utility rates and regulations. Coffman, 41, joined the office in 1989 and has served as its director the past three years. He also is vice president of the National Association of State Utility Advocates.

Coffman served six years as the Sixth Ward representative on the Columbia City Council. He vacated the seat in April 2003.

Mills, 45, worked in the public counsel’s office from 1988 to 1998, serving as deputy public counsel from 1990 onward. He was named deputy chief regulatory law judge for the Public Service Commission in 1998. Mills did not immediately return a telephone call Tuesday.

Earlier this year, Blunt’s administration eliminated three of the 14 positions in the public counsel’s office — laying off an attorney, economist and accountant — as part of a larger reduction in state employees. Coffman said that made it more difficult for his office to do its job.

“Consumers have taken terrible hits in the legislature, before the PSC and also in the courts,” Coffman said. “I fear for what Missouri consumers are going to face in the coming years. I think a variety of these changes could mean much higher rates, and unfairly high rates.”

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