The Office of the Public Counsel was established in 1975 to represent the public and the interests of utility customers in proceedings before the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) and in investor-owned electric, natural gas, telephone, water, sewer and steam heat utilities, including safety issues, adequate and quality service, complaints and disputes, connections and disconnections, and billing and collection practices. The Office of the Public Counsel is independent from the PSC and has a separate budget and staff. The Department of Economic Development director appoints the public counsel who must be a Missouri licensed attorney. While the Office of Public Counsel reviews all utility filings and issues considered by the PSC, the focus is utility rates and regulations proceedings that affect residential and small business customers. The office takes an active role in cases that propose to increase rates and often makes its own proposal for rate reductions. The office also protects the customers' interests in other PSC cases that touch on such issues as rate design, new area codes, PSC investigations into general industry issues, and rules and regulations governing the rights and obligations of customers and utilities that affect service. Attorneys from the office attend local public hearings where customers comment on PSC cases.
At present, the office has 11 staff members. Three attorneys, including the public counsel, provide the legal representation while 2 public utility accountants and 2 economists provide the technical expertise. In some cases, the office contracts with experts and consultants for specialized expertise. The technical staff and consultants investigate and research regulatory issues and utility operations, prepare reports and exhibits and testify on technical issues in the evidentiary hearings.
Since the Office of the Public Counsel represents the public and ratepayers as a class, the office does not provide specific legal representation of individuals for individual problems. However, the office tries to help customers by contacting the utility or directing them to the appropriate PSC department or government agency. It also comments on utility issues that affect consumers and cooperates with other state consumer advocates, public interest and consumer groups and organizations to educate the public about consumer rights and to protect the rights of ratepayers. The public counsel's authority to appeal PSC decisions is a significant right. Prior to the establishment of the Office of the Public Counsel, the general public did not have the ability to seek judicial review of adverse PSC decisions.