ANNAPOLIS – Many Maryland electric customers are still steaming about the delayed response to power outages during storms in August and September, but now they have a new lawyer to speak for them.
Wednesday marked the first day of Patricia A. Smith’s tenure as People’s Counsel for Maryland. The former Johns Hopkins University assistant professor of public safety leadership was nominated by Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Monday.
“I think she is an excellent choice for this job,” Maryland Public Service Commissioner Gail McDonald said. “She has excellent education credentials.”
Smith is an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and has served as chief counsel for the Baltimore Police Department, chief attorney for the Baltimore branch of Legal Aid Bureau Inc. and as a Maryland administrative law judge.
Almost immediately, Smith will be in the thick of the controversy surrounding the storm-related power outages. Hundreds of thousands of utility customers were left without electricity for days after September’s Hurricane Isabel and thunderstorms in August. Residents are looking for answers about the delay.
Smith will represent these ratepayers before the Maryland Public Service Commission, which is scheduled to review utility performance during the storms.
While Smith has never worked so directly with utility regulation issues, she has some experience with problems of low-income consumers, including termination of power, she said. She has also dealt with environmental regulatory problems relevant to industries, including utility companies.
Smith said she is looking forward to her new challenge.
“I am very excited,” she said.
Under Smith’s leadership, the Office of People’s Counsel will “aggressively review” utility reports on its own and work closely with the Public Service Commission to help determine what changes should be made, “keeping in mind as well that nature can be humbling,” Smith said.
Smith wants to play an ongoing role as consumer educator.
Commissioner McDonald said there are opportunities for Smith to provide expanded residential consumer education. This is a difficult time for consumers, she said, especially since some of them are concerned with possible increases in natural gas prices.
Smith replaces Michael J. Travieso, who stepped down in August at Ehrlich’s request, said the Office of People’s Counsel.
Pepco had a good relationship with Travieso, Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin said. The company maintains its relationship with the Office of People’s Counsel, he said, which represents Pepco’s Maryland customers.
Commissioner McDonald said Travieso was “passionate” and “dedicated.” But she said Smith is “well-qualified” to replace him.
The governor selected Smith as People’s Counsel because of her legal prowess and her experience in handling citizen grievances, said Henry Fawell, Ehrlich’s press secretary. The utility issue is important, but it is only one part of the job. She satisfies the “long-term requirements of this job,” Fawell said.
Smith also served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, handling criminal and civil environmental litigation. She was an assistant attorney general at the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. At the same time, she served as deputy counsel for the Maryland Department of the Environment, litigating cases on air and water pollution and hazardous wastes, among others.
Smith has also been an assistant state’s attorney in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney Office, handling misdemeanors and felonies in jury and court trials.
Smith is a “very thorough” attorney and a “crusader for the poor,” said Michael Flannery, a staff attorney at the Towson office of Legal Aid Bureau Inc. He worked with Smith at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office and for her at the Baltimore City branch of the Legal Aid Bureau Inc.