State's Utilities Regulator To Resign -- Sharon Nelson's Surprise Decision Dismays Consumer Activists

OLYMPIA - Sharon Nelson, the sometimes controversial head of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, has unexpectedly resigned, saying she wants to pursue other interests after 12 years in office.

Nelson's announcement yesterday, which came as Gov. Gary Locke was about to appoint her to a fourth six-year term, left some wondering whether a change in direction for the board will follow.

Under her leadership, the commission has had an often contentious relationship with the utilities industry, particularly with US West Communications over phone rates.

Last year, for instance, the commission not only rejected a US West request to double local residential rates, but also ordered the phone company to reduce its rates for residential, business and long-distance service. The rate case is scheduled to be heard by the state Supreme Court next month.

The company has complained the commission doesn't understand the cost of doing business in the state. Company spokeswoman Dana Smith yesterday said US West hopes Locke will appoint "someone who understands what the high-tech economy is going through."

However, David West, executive director of Washington Citizen Action, a consumer group, called Nelson "one of the best commissioners in the country. With the coming of telecommunications and electrical deregulation, this will be one of the single most important appointments Locke will make."

Nelson's resignation comes at an important juncture. The state is moving toward deregulating telephone and electrical service, and as chairwoman of the UTC, Nelson would have been a prominent player in determining how the state opened up the utilities to competition.

"We need a strong consumer advocate in place when we do that," said Judy Krebs, Washington Citizen Action's assistant director.

But Nelson, 50, said she wanted a change. "I don't need to sit through any more local water-rate hearings," she said.

Locke, who worked as an attorney for US West in 1987 and 1988, negotiating rights of way and advising on regulatory matters, said he's not looking for a change in the commission's direction. He denied his past association with the phone company poses a conflict of interest.

Asked what qualities he'll look for in a replacement, Locke said, "Someone just like Sharon Nelson."

"I won't consult with US West or any utility about the appointment. That, I think, would be inappropriate," Locke said.

Locke's chief of staff, Joe Dear, said the administration hopes to find a replacement by the time Nelson leaves office Aug. 1, but declined to speculate about candidates for the $86,974-a-year post.

Locke said he was disappointed Nelson is leaving, adding he intended to reappoint her and tried to talk her into staying right up until her resignation was announced at a news conference yesterday.

"I even asked her what would happen if I refused to accept her resignation and she said, `We've abolished slavery in the United States,' " the governor said.

However, Locke may have missed an opportunity to keep her. Nelson's term officially expired in January, and she indicated early this year that she was ready to serve another term.

But as the months passed, Nelson said, she began thinking it was an opportune time to make a change.

"I was pleased to serve our state, region and nation in these roles, but having concluded these tasks, this appears to be a logical time to leave," she said in a resignation letter submitted to Locke's office Friday.

Nelson told reporters she intends to spend some time vacationing in the San Juan Islands and traveling, "and then I'll figure out what to do when I grow up."