Activist and Professor
Dr. Irene Leech
is an Associate Professor in consumer studies in the Department of Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management at Virginia Tech. She is President of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Virginia’s grassroots volunteer consumer advocacy and education organization. Leech is also vice-president of the Consumer Federation of America, a non-profit organization committed to educating, supporting and advocating for the consumer. She served on the Virginia Attorney General's Identity Theft Panel in 2002.
Send Irene your thanks for all she does on behalf of consumers.
What would prompt a full-time professor to spend her winter break at the state capitol debating with government representatives, legislators and regulators and working with consumer advocates?
"I was appalled," says Irene. Here's why.
As activist and professor Irene Leech sees it, in late 2006 the Virginia utilities came up with a proposal that would give them freedom from true oversight. She says, "They had been scheming and were ready with a bill that is called 'hybrid' regulation that really puts the utilities in charge -- NOT THE REGULATORS. And they had a strategy -- the Virginia legislature's short session. In the first analysis, I was appalled. In the end, they got their dream -- self-regulation"
When Irene found out about the proposal in December, she used her holiday break to go to Richmond and get to work. She said, "With this proposal, consumer rates would go up to a place that would invite competition, BUT competition would be prevented."
The proposal's design gave the big utilities their way through the structuring of the analysis. Each cost and all the profits would be looked at in pieces -- the whole picture was never going to be seen. Thus the regulators and the consumer would never know how much profit was being made and where it was all coming from.
AEP and Dominion -- Virginia's big utilities -- not only insisted on this piecemeal and very opaque review but they demanded guaranteed income that would be at least the average of their peer utilities. They said this was critical or they would receive no money from Wall Street, but Dr. Leech doesn't agree. "There's plenty of money," she says.
Why would Leech take up this battle? Well, she's sure Dominion wants the money to keep its raw political power sharp and avoid spending on true environmental protection. But her real incentive is to be a role model to the students she teaches. And she thinks too few people are proactive on these issues. She says, "Good allies have decided there is no way to win politically -- but I think it's the right thing to do."
Leech offers three tips for students and residents of ANY community on how to be in charge of what happens locally. She says:
- Pay attention to cases being heard in the regulatory environment or changes in the way we regulate -- you really have to look for them because they try to slide them through. But they do ask for citizen feedback and we have to do this or it will seem that nobody cares and industry will get what it wants.
- Read the newspaper and find out what's happening. It's important to stay connected -- including reading the boring sections of the paper.
- Regardless of how the regulators or industry act, they are just people. Do it once [speak out] and it's easier the next time. And cheer each other on!
Irene says when students get mad for her, she can feel like she's gotten a pat on the back. Give Irene YOUR pat on the back.