During his last public hearing as the utility regulator representing Baton Rouge and Lafayette, Jimmy Field’s fellow commissioners remembered his statesmanship during the often stormy meetings of the Louisiana Public Service Commission.
But witness after witness also recalled some great play Field performed a half century ago as quarterback for the LSU Tigers.
Field retired Monday after 16 years as one of the longest-serving utility regulators in the country. He will be replaced Tuesday by Scott Angelle, who has previously served as interim lieutenant governor, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s liaison with the Louisiana Legislature.
PSC District 2, which Tuesday changes configuration slightly due to redistricting, covers about 1 million residents in parts of East Baton Rouge, Iberville, Livingston St. Martin, West Baton Rouge parishes, East Feliciana, Iberia, Lafayette, Lafourche, St. Mary, Terrebonne, and West Feliciana parishes.
Prior to Dec. 12 testimony, during which Michael Ranatza would blast a position Field had taken as PSC commissioner, the director of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association first recalled cheering Field’s 22-yard touchdown run on New Year’s Day at the 1963 Cotton Bowl. LSU defeated, by a 13-0 score, an unbeaten University of Texas.
But as loud as he cheered that run, Ranatza said he cheered louder at the beginning of the PSC meeting when Field was recognized by the other four-elected regulators for providing intelligent and civil discourse on debates that have become increasingly contentious.
When later asked about constant references to his LSU football career, Field said, “It’s the reason I got elected. It gave me some name recognition. It was amazing I got elected.”
Field grew up in the Southdowns neighborhood and was a student leader at University High School. Back in the early 1960s, LSU Coach Paul Dietzel was reported as saying Field was one of the most unselfish youths he had ever coached.
But running in 1996 as a first-time candidate at 56 years old, the Republican lawyer faced a popular legislator from Acadiana and a well-known former East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member. Field won a close vote to replace Kathleen Blanco on the PSC.
Field said one of his proudest achievements on the PSC was crafting the procedures — called market-based mechanisms — for requiring utility companies to show that they bought the cheapest fuels available to run their generating plants. Utility company officials say they already were bidding and buying the least expensive power possible, but the market-based mechanisms show the public what it is paying for and why.
Field said he’s also proud of hesitating at Entergy’s offer to settle a case for hundreds of millions of dollars. “Our lawyers felt the ratepayer would get more, if we challenged Entergy before FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) and in the courts. That decision led to a couple billion dollars in refunds to our ratepayers,” Field said.
Field is leaving a PSC whose meetings David Cruthirds, the Houston-based commentator on utility regulation around the country, has described lately as “contentious,” “emotional” and “nasty.” Always open to bickering among the five elected officials, the PSC has lately become more partisan, strident and, at times, more prone to angry outbursts.
“Commissioner Field has been a great statesman who always let his conscience; faith and sense of public service guide his words and actions. Field will be greatly missed in Louisiana as well as at NARUC,” Cruthirds wrote in the Dec. 12 “The Cruthirds Report,” which follows utility regulation around the country. NARUC, or the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, is a nonprofit organization that represents state utilities regulators from every state. Field had served as an officer in NARUC over the years.
“I worry about the civility right now,” Field said about the Louisiana commission. Witnesses need to be treated with respect, regardless of their policy positions or politics, he said.
Beyond basic politeness, if everyone has a chance to participate and is treated respectfully, and if commissioners are straightforward about how they came to the positions they are taking; then everyday people, who are going to have to pay the bills, will better understand why the decision was made, he said.
“It’s important for us to regain confidence in our government,” Field said.
Brad Mittendorf, now a Baton Rouge lobbyist, was Field’s campaign manager and chief of staff from 1996 to 2002. “As someone brand new to politics, Jimmy stressed to me that we ask all the questions you need to ask, read everything you can get your hands on,” Mittendorf said.
The PSC oversees large and rich utility, transportation and telecommunication industries that operate within an area as a monopoly. Hearings are conducted in the language of high finance and complex engineering. The commissioners decide a fair price for companies to charge their customers.
“Jimmy said that we should remember that if all sides were little bit unhappy, at the end of day, then we probably hit the right policy,” Mittendorf said.
Incoming Commissioner Angelle said that as a parish president and Cabinet secretary, he frequently has been called upon to try to find common ground among competing interests.
“I think my career is similar to that role of what Commissioner Field played,” Angelle said. “At the same time, I have a long way to go before I can be compared to him. His ability to provide that leadership came from years of experience.”
Since PSC commissioner is officially considered a part-time employment that pays about $45,000 annually for a six-year term, Angelle said he is looking for another job, probably in the oilfield sector. Angelle said he would, as he did as an appointed state official, continue to live in Breaux Bridge and circulate between offices in the district.
He said he would not change the six staffers who work directly for Field, except for David Kantrow, who already has left to serve as legal counsel to a U.S. Army command based in Utah.
Field said he promised his wife he would actually retire. Still, after living a busy life, setting up on a rocking chair is not quite what he has in mind. He said he would practice law part time and is looking into mentoring programs.
“I want to be purposeful for the remainder of my days,” Field said.