The Citizens’ Utility Board, or CUB, is a model approach for bringing together large numbers of diffuse consumers into a voluntary organization, which can then pursue a common citizen/consumer agenda in banking, insurance, housing or dozens of other arenas. I call it the “silicon chip” for the citizen movement because it is a low-cost, high versatility, powerfully effective device.
How does a CUB work? Typically, residential consumers lack the organization, resources or expertise to respond to utility arguments on such matters as ratesetting and safety. CUB offers an ingenious way to provide effective citizen representation. By authority of state legislatures, a CUB is given the right to enclose notices inside certain state mailings to invite the public to become voluntary members of the CUB for a modest annual fee of $5 to $10. CUB pays for this enclosure. This “piggybacking” on state mailings provides a convenient, effective way for the CUB to organize a membership and to communicate with it, and a basis for self-sufficiency and financial accountability.
All members of the CUB have the right to vote in the election of the CUB Board of Directors. This process ensures that the leadership of CUB reflects the interests of the ratepayers. The Directors serve without pay and hire full-time staff of accountants, attorneys, economists, organizers, and lobbyists. The staff can intervene, for example, in rate proceedings; advocate before the legislature; research issues of concern to consumers; survey public opinion on energy and telecommunications issues; analyze the way the utilities are handling complaints; and provide information and assistance to consumers interested in conserving energy.
Illinois CUB, for example, attracts tens of thousands of members and has blocked literally billions of dollars in gratuitous rate hikes. It would be easy to apply the CUB idea to organizations like the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Postal Service. Big mailers (magazine publishers and the direct-mail industry) routinely use lobbyists and trade associations to advance their interests in postal commission rate hearings. Don’t residential mailers deserve their own independent voice?
The beauty of the CUB concept is that, as a voluntary group, it costs taxpayers virtually nothing. It is anti-bureaucratic, because no new government personnel or procedures are needed. It enhances civic participation, because the CUB depends for its success on the energy and vision of its members. And it counters the massive inequities of power that afflicts consumers in their dealings with government and business.
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