Detroit activists deliver demand for public hearing to Michigan Public Service Commissioners in song

During its first-ever regular business meeting held outside Lansing, Michigan Public Service Commissioners received a Detroit-style welcome – and a question – from gospel singer Corzetta Booze.

During the public comment section of the Wednesday meeting, citizens voiced their opinions on an array of energy-related topics, including the Enbridge Line 5 gas tunnel, solar energy caps, and electricity rates. 

In an impassioned speech, Booze called on the commission to hold a public hearing in Case U-20836, the application of DTE Electric for authority to increase its rates. The utility is proposing to increase its rates by 9% – an increase that would hit Detroit residents, who already have one of the highest energy burdens in the country, hard.

“One of the things we asked for is an official public hearing in the DTE rate case, so we can have a meaningful process to get our voices on the record and a way for you to have to engage with us in your decision to raise our rates,” Booze said. “And you said no, and not because you can’t, but simply because you don’t. So, which side are you on?”

At that last sentence, Booze broke into a gospel-styled rendition of “Which side are you on?” – the protest hymn written in 1931 by Florence Reece, wife of labor leader Sam Reece, during a labor dispute in a Kentucky coal mine, as audience members clapped in rhythm. Reece and activists rewrote the song’s lyrics for the occasion.

There were three regulators

Who wanted to stay woke

But they declined to hear the people

chose not to rock the boat

MPSC Chair Dan Scripps broke protocol and responded to Booze’s melodious inquiry. 

“So, we don’t usually respond to questions, but we will in this case… because you sang,” Scripps quipped.

Scripps explained that the MPSC does not normally hold public hearings in rate cases, though it has held such hearings for long-range integrated resource plans, or IRPs, which are utilities’ long-range plans for providing electricity over a 20-year planning period. It has also held public hearings on major issues like the MPSC’s review of Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 tunnel project application.

“We heard you, that the rate cases are as important – maybe more so,” Scripps said. “As far as I know, we’ve never had public hearings in rate cases. Now, it doesn’t mean we can’t, and I think it’s something that we’re actively considering.”

Scripps added that it was “fairly late in the process” to add a public hearing to Case U-20836, noting that briefs had been filed the day before. “That doesn’t mean that it’s done. But it is fairly late. So I think we’re trying to figure out what to do in this case.”

The meeting in Detroit was part of a larger effort on MPSC’s part to increase opportunities for Michigan utility customers to have their voices heard, according to MPSC Spokesperson Matt Helms.  

“The MPSC held the meeting in Detroit as part of ongoing efforts to explore the best ways to do that,” Helms wrote in an email. “The meeting was the first time in anyone’s memory that the MPSC held a regular Commission meeting outside of Lansing.”

The public can submit comments during any public meeting of the Commission, which are held twice a month. They can also submit comments electronically or by mail in each rate case. All comments are submitted to the case docket in MPSC’s E-Dockets system.

While those who participate via public comment have their statements incorporated into the record that the Commission reviews in making its decision, they do not typically have the right to submit evidence, cross-examine witnesses, or appeal decisions in court, as do parties who formally intervene with legal counsel.

Helms also noted that the MPSC must follow state statutes in deciding rate cases, which allows it ten months from the filing date to issue a decision. Case U-20836 was filed Jan. 21, meaning a final decision must be reached by November. If not, utilities have the legal right to enact the full amount of the requested rates.

“In DTE Electric’s current case, the process of providing testimony and cross-examination has already been completed, and parties in the case have filed their initial briefs,” Helms wrote in an email. “While that means the case is in its later procedural stages, there are still steps in the process, including a proposal for decision (PDF) by the administrative law judge and for parties to provide exceptions to the PFD, before the Commission issues its order by the statutory deadline in November.”

For Booze, that’s not enough. 

“I’ve lived in Detroit my whole entire life, and I’ve seen us struggle over and over again, and we always come out on the losing end of things,” Booze told Planet Detroit.  “It’s unfortunate because so many people can’t afford these increases, but they get imposed on us, and we have no say. It would be really good for them to see and hear people living through this and dealing with it.”

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