Gov. Snyder picks ex-energy exec to help set utility rates

When your power company wants to raise your rate, they have to get approval by a special commission who are supposedly looking out for you.

So does it make sense to appoint someone who used to work for one of the biggest power companies in the state?

Norman Saari is well-liked in Lansing where he has worked for both the power company and the power brokers. The question now is whether he'll work just as hard for you.

Saari spent most of his career at Consumers Energy. Consumers Energy is one of the nation's largest gas and electric companies providing heat and light to more than 6.5 million Michigan residents.

"I worked for 30 years in the communications and governmental affairs department," Saari said.

Norman Saari has also worked for some of the most powerful Republicans in Michigan.

"I've worked for the past eight years in staff positions in the Michigan Senate, the governor's office and the Michigan House of Representatives," Saari said.

Consumers Energy is a top contributor to Gov. Rick Snyder's Moving Michigan Forward fund, the power company gave $25,000 in 2013 and another $25,000 last year.

This year, Gov. Rick Snyder put Norm Saari on the Michigan Public Service Commission. The same folks who decide how much the power company and phone company can charge you.

FOX 2: "What impact did the contribution of $25,000 by Consumers Energy to the Moving Michigan Forward fund have on your decision?"

Gov. Rick Snyder: "None. Again, Norm had left Consumers years ago and I don't make decisions based on people giving money to any entity."

But some folks in Lansing are skeptical. Folks like Sam Inglot of Progress Michigan, a consumer watchdog group.

"I'm sure it's something any corporation would be happy to have when you basically tap a fox to guard the hen house," said Sam Inglot.

Saari's past as an advocate for a utility company and his future as a regulator of utility companies would seem to raise at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

FOX 2: "So there's no part of you that says, Consumers was a good company, and if they say we should do this, it's probably a good idea."

Saari:  "There's no part of me that says that, no."

FOX 2: "Do you feel there could be someone better to fill this position so that consumers in Michigan can have no question.

Saari: "I have no comment on that."

Is there no one else in Michigan who could have had less of a question about his impartiality for this position?

Snyder: "Well, he'd left that position years ago, so there's a huge gap in service. So again he lived his life doing many different things, in terms of helping my office, in terms of helping the legislature. There's a major separation of service, so I don't foresee that as a conflict of interest."

Fortunately, our democracy is built on a system of checks and balances and that's where the Michigan State Senate's Energy and Technology Committee comes in.

Their job was to grill Saari. But senators didn't ask Saari whether he would work harder for Michigan consumers or Consumers Energy

During Saari's hearing, one senator even said: "Obviously we're going to take you at your word you're going to be impartial, so we're to skip that question."

In fact, Norm Saari's confirmation hearing seemed more like a visit to a place where everybody knows your name.

"It kind of seemed more like a lunch date with an old friend, really," Inglot said.

And that, Inglot says, short-changed Michigan utility users.

"When it comes down to it, this is not just the type of person that we need serving on this board that is supposed to be a watchdog for ratepayers," Inglot said. "This is a guy that was on the complete opposite side of that table just a decade ago. It wasn't a short term stint; this was this man's career."

Saari says he has no financial interest in any Michigan utility and has even severed all ties with his old employers.

"I have no pension from Consumers Energy," Saari said. "I have no retiree health care from Consumers Energy, I have no life insurance from Consumers Energy, I don't get a senior citizens discount on my energy bills and I pay for my own light bulbs."

Saari says he took a lump-sum payout when he retired from Consumers Energy, and he says his interest in the public service commission is about service, and not the salary of more than $90,000.

FOX 2: "What would you say to those people who say this is a golden parachute to a Lansing insider a pretty soft landing, a nice six-figure gig, sounds pretty good.'"

"Actually what sounds good about it is that I have knowledge of the issues," Saari said. "I am able to learn the new application of those issues, I was born in Michigan and likely going to be buried in Michigan so that time I'm going to be here, I'm going to do my best to improve the lot of this state."

"I know Norm personally," Snyder said. "He's an outstanding individual and I know he'll do a good job."

FOX 2: "To some people this position looks like it's rewarding one of the old boys from Lansing."

Snyder: "No, it's having a highly qualified person that I have confidence in take a position that's important to Michigan customers."