For decades, a recurring criticism of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission has been how long it takes the three appointed members to make decisions on energy, transportation and telecommunications issues.

Dozens of important dockets have gathered dust due to poor strategic planning, mismanaged staff and the inability to come to a consensus on policy direction, according to state audits. Projects have been delayed, opportunities missed.

When Randy Iwase took over as PUC chair in January, he set out to put an end to the old way of doing business. No more foot dragging. No more excuses.

Randy Iwase speaks to senators at the Capitol.  17 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Public Utilities Commission Chair Randy Iwase, seen here addressing state senators in February, has implemented new policies to facilitate faster decisions on dockets. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That has meant new office management procedures and processes to approve major opinions on the biggest issues before the commission, namely the proposed $4.3 billion sale of Hawaiian Electric Industries to NextEra Energy and four other dockets (distributed energy resource policies, decoupling, demand response and power supply improvement plans).

Iwase has tried to tighten the reins on his fellow commissioners, Lorraine Akiba and Mike Champley, who must seek the chair’s approval to direct staff and utilize consultants.

Then there’s the so-called “American Flag” process Iwase created for the commissioners to follow when drafting and reviewing key opinions the PUC issues.

“We just cannot afford to have situations where decisions sit for no reason whatsoever. It’s an embarrassment.” — PUC Chair Randy Iwase

It starts with the first draft of an opinion, which is on a white piece of paper. That gets circulated and marked up with amendments written in red. Then the three commissioners look at the changes that have been made and put their agreements down in blue.

Commissioners vote up or down on the amendments and then the overall opinion, Iwase told Civil Beat on Thursday. They also have to respond within three days to a draft decision that’s been circulated.

“This is a means to get the commissioners to do what they’re paid to do, and that is make a decision in a timely manner,” he said. “We just cannot afford to have situations where decisions sit for no reason whatsoever. It’s an embarrassment.”

Iwase wouldn’t go into all the reasons why the decisions sat, but said commissioners now must commit to their positions on issues, which gives clear direction to staff.

Iwase said the white, red and blue “American Flag” process is one of several changes he’s made administratively.

“It’s still rough,” he said. “People have to adjust to this. People may still want to go back to how it was — but how it was, was not satisfactory.”

Iwase opened an Aug. 14 memo about “office management” with a reference to a scathing state audit conducted in 2004, the most recent of the PUC.

“I’m not here to make everyone happy with a consensus opinion that’s so watered down it’s meaningless.” — Randy Iwase

“The commission’s … misguided mission statements and inability to strategically plan for organizational improvements have resulted in a lack of long and short term plans, mismanaged personnel and informational systems and faulty administration of laws,” he wrote, quoting the audit.

The five major dockets before the commission constitute a “huge drain” on staff, Iwase said, necessitating a more efficient work flow.

He lays out interim measures in the memo. Chief among them is that Iwase will be the one to prioritize work for the commission and staff members. His fellow commissioners can’t ask the staff to attend meetings they’ve scheduled, for instance, without the chair’s approval.

“I’m giving the staff the time to do their job,” Iwase said. “They have to be treated as professionals, not as law clerks.”

Iwase said there is no reason that at least three of the four major dockets pending before the commission should not have been decided before he became chair. He’s heard the concerns about the need to wait to decide those issues until after the NextEra-HEI merger is decided, but said the commission is capable of multitasking and should do so with those dockets.

“The four dockets set out where we want to go and how we want to get there,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s Hawaiian Electric or NextEra, they will have to follow that blueprint.”

Iwase said he’s putting to use his years of experience as a former lawmaker and head of the Labor and Industrial Relations Appeals Board to get things moving.

“I’m not here to make everyone happy with a consensus opinion that’s so watered down it’s meaningless,” he said.

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