by Norm Winick

It may seem like a long way from Williamsfield, a community of fewer than 600 in eastern Knox County to downtown Chicago but William R. ''Randy'' Fritz makes the commute several times a year to chair meetings of the Illinois Citizens Utility Board as they take on giant utilities like Commonwealth Edison, SBC Ameritech, Dynegy/Illinois Power and GTE. Much of the time, discussions and meetings are held by conference calls and messages are sent by email.

Fritz teaches History and Government at Williamsfield High School. ''I've always been a 60s liberal who hasn't changed his spots.'' Fritz has been on the CUB board for about three years. I wrote them and asked to be president. I said we should have a downstate president to show we're not just a Chicago organization and we represent the whole state. Nobody ran against me and I'm it. In July 1998, I worked as an unpaid intern in the Chicago office for a month to get familiar with the internal workings.''

The Illinois legislature formed the Citizens Utility Board in 1983 after prodding by populist politician Patrick Quinn. It's a nonprofit, nonpartisan statewide organization that receives no state tax money. ''We're the only state agency not funded by the state. In some ways, we're a victim of our own success. We still have nearly 150,000 members but people aren't giving as much as they did earlier. At first, our membership requests were inserted in utility bills but the companies sued and got that stopped. Now we put them in with license plate renewals. We anticipated the opposition to the drastic increase in those fees hurting us and it has. We have made up that with a $1 million contribution each year from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.'' That fund is financed by ComEd as part of a settlement with CUB, using excess profits the utility generated from selling their coal plants for lots more than they had anticipated.''

Fritz says that CUB is currently fighting utility companies on several fronts. ''We've joined a group from Williamsville, near Springfield, suing GTE for local metered service charges. They are grossly unfair for rural people. Many of their local calls are to another exchange.The local telephone companies get paid for each call and each minute. Seamus Glynn on our staff is a nationally recognized expert on telecommunications issues. He has told us that the difference in cost to a telephone company between an inactive line and an active one is negligible. Based on that, flat rates seem to be the most fair. I am convinced that locally metered service is a way to recapture some telephone revenues lost to email.''

CUB is also suing SBC Ameritech, claiming that two of the rate packages they're currently promoting are hidden rate increases.

Fritz was also intimately involved with the utility deregulation effort that will eventually result is competition among electric companies. ''While some people say we sold out, I think we got the best that we could in a very uncertain situation. I don't think that CUB ever felt that utility deregulation was a good thing but we could not prevent it from happening.We decided that what people really wanted was lower rates and we negotiated 20 percent decreases for the two highest priced suppliers, ComEd and Illinois Power. The last of that decrease is even going into effect seven months earlier than planned. In no state with competition did ratepayers see even as much as a 15 percent reduction. Even more than low rates, people want reliability. It's not in our interest for ComEd or Illinois Power to go out of business. Under deregulation, a market is going to slowly develop. We don't know where it will go or what the rates will be. Even though there were objection to the deregulation bill we negotiated, I believe it was the best we could do.''

On another front, CUB is fighting cable companies over their ''usurious late fees.'' Utility companies in Illinois are restricted to charges of 1 1/2 percent per month. ''To make it worse, cable companies bill you in advance. You're paying late fees for service you haven't yet received.''

Besides the legal actions and representation before the Illinois Commerce Commission on their issues, CUB serves consumers directly. ''We help people file complaints with the ICC. We help them if they've been slammed or crammed. When they call, 1-900-669-5556, we never ask if they're a CUB member. Our mandate is to advocate for the consumer and that's what we do. I'm very impressed with our staff; we have some sharp people.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online May 3, 2000

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