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Puget Sound Energy fined nearly $1 million

State regulators last week penalized Puget Sound Energy (PSE) $995,000 for violating consumer privacy laws by intentionally sharing customers’ private information with an outside marketing partner without the customers’ written permission.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) accepted a settlement that calls for PSE to pay a $900,000 penalty, contribute an additional $95,000 to low-income heating assistance and permanently cease the marketing program that released private customer information in violation of state law. As a condition of accepting the settlement, the UTC also required the company to notify its customers of its misconduct and the penalties. PSE will not be allowed to recover the penalties in any future rate-increase request. The $95,000 contribution to low-income heating assistance reflects the estimated revenue PSE received from the unlawful sharing of customer private information.

State regulations prohibit privately owned energy utilities, such as PSE, from releasing or selling customer information to any outside party for marketing purposes without the customer’s written permission.

Under the settlement, PSE acknowledged transferring more than 65,000 phone calls to an outside marketing firm without the customers’ written permission over a five-year period. The program, targeting new and relocating customers, also transferred basic customer information to the marketing firm between November 2001 and March 2006. Because of a two-year statute of limitations, however, only 18,992 call transfers were subject to penalties.

“Here we conclude that PSE intentionally violated the rule as part of a corporate decision to sell its customers’ private information for financial gain,” said the three-member commission in their written decision, noting that PSE had participated in the rule-making process that resulted in the privacy rule being adopted just one month before PSE began its marketing program.

In March 2006, the UTC began an investigation into a report that PSE call-center employees were transferring some customer calls and information to Allconnect, Inc., a Georgia-based marketing company. Known as PSE Connections, the program marketed household services, such as telephone, newspaper and lawn services, to PSE’s residential customers.

PSE received payment for transferring these residential customers to Allconnect.

PSE immediately suspended the program in March 2006, when the commission investigation began, pending its outcome. Under the settlement, the company will end the program permanently.

Utility Storm Response workshop

State regulators will hold an all-day workshop Feb. 8 in Olympia to discuss energy and telephone companies’ response to last December’s windstorms.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) has scheduled the utilities’ emergency response plan meeting from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 8 in the second-floor hearing room at the commission headquarters, 1300 S. Evergreen Park Dr. S.W., Olympia. The workshop is open to the public.

There will be two sessions in the workshop. The morning session will focus on electricity-related problems with public comments scheduled from 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The afternoon session will address telephone and cable-related problems with public comment scheduled for 3 p.m.

Representatives from the state’s three private investor-owned electric utilities and four major telecommunications companies will talk about each company’s response to the devastating storms that swept Washington in December. The utilities are expected to discuss clean-up and repair costs from the storm, possible rate increases and length of time needed to restore electrical power or phone service for customers. The companies also will address what steps can be taken to improve service when future weather emergencies arise.

The Dec. 14 windstorm knocked out electricity and telephone service to thousands of people for days, and some residents experienced power and phone outages for more than a week. The commission received calls from more than 401 consumers about the length of outages, priorities of repair and placement of power lines underground.

Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy is the state’s largest electricity utility providing electricity service to more than a million homes and businesses in nine Washington counties: Island, Skagit, Thurston, Whatcom, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Kittitas, and Pierce. Officials from telecommunications companies Qwest, Verizon, CenturyTel and Comcast will also participate in the workshop.

The three-member commission has the authority to regulate the electricity and local telephone rates and services provided by the state’s private utility companies.

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On the Net:

www.wutc.wa.gov.

Neighborhood Preparedness Planning

The City of Mercer Island has had a Neighborhood Preparedness plan since 1993. For information on how to organize, join or update a neighborhood plan, call Rebecca Clark, Emergency preparedness Coordinator at 236- 3576.

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On the Net:

www.mercergov.org

King County Web site:

www.metrokc.gov/prepare

False alarms still high

The Mercer Island Police Department responded to 972 false alarms in 2006 coming from private homes and businesses on the Island. While that is only about one every three days, it is still nearly three times the amount received by the city of Des Moines police department in Southern King County.

According to a press release issued on Jan. 9, Des Moines passed a controversial alarm ordinance in 2005 that has brought its number of police responses to false alarms from 1,093 in 2004 to 383 last year.

Des Moines is slightly more populated than Mercer Island, with 29,000 people counted in 2006 compared to the Island’s 22,000.

Des Moines received criticism for the alarm ordinance which it passed in 2005. After the first full year with the ordinance ended, the city noted the large reduction in false dispatches.

Before the Mercer Island passed it’s alarm ordinance, during the five year period from 1996 to 2000 only 2.5 percent of the alarms it responded to were valid. Even though false alarms are down, they are still problematic for the police department.

“Police and Fire responses to false alarms are problematic,” MIPD Public Information Officer Leslie Burns said. “When the police and fire departments respond to a false alarm it ties up valuable resources which are already in short supply.”

According the press release from Des Moines, false dispatches in that jurisdiction are down by 65 percent compared to numbers in 2004 and nearly 57 percent in the last year.

The Island still has a high number of false alarms. Home owners and businesses are allowed one false alarm every six months without getting fined. For every false alarm after that they are fined. For the first false alarm they receive an on-site written notice and warning letter. The second offense is a $50 fine, the third a $75 fine, and for the fourth and each additional false alarm it is a $100 fine.

“We do not hold false alarm classes and we do not hold alarm hearings,” Burns said. “Rather, if someone wants to contest a fine, they call our alarms coordinator, Lauri Herrera, who will listen to their account. In most cases, false alarms which are a result of a faulty system will be excused if the homeowner can show a receipt for repairs to the system.”

Local Marine on trial for vehicular homicide

The trial for a 24-year-old Island electrician and U.S. Marine who recently served in Iraq was scheduled to begin Monday, Jan. 30.

In the early hours of Dec. 14, Jeremy Thomas Lamb was involved in a five car pile-up on the 520 bridge. Responding officers accused Lamb of driving drunk and causing the accident that critically injured a woman in the car he struck. Lamb was arrested for vehicular assault but the 55-year-old victim died the following Sunday from extensive brain and head injuries.

The following day Lamb was charged with vehicular homicide and was arraigned the day after Christmas. He was released on a $50,000 bail.

Lamb is originally from Wenatchee, where he attended East Mount High School until 2001. Upon graduation he joined the Marines and recently moved to Mercer Island in pursuit of a job with Puget Sound Energy. He turned 24 on Jan. 6.

No suspects in

abduction attempt

Mercer Island police are still searching for leads regarding the attempted abduction and attack of a Mercer Island resident on Jan. 18 and have not been able to determine any possible suspects.

Despite an intensive effort that included notifying all other local police agencies and appearing on numerous news stories, only a few tips were submitted.

“We ran several stories on television, radio and newspaper and have received some tips from citizens, but nothing that has panned out to be our suspect,” Officer Leslie Burns a week after the attack.

In addition to the news reports, police distributed flyers to businesses in Town Center in hopes to find some witnesses or anyone who saw the suspect. Plus, the department’s School Resource Officer, Art Munoz, checked to see if the description matched any MIHS students. Those efforts did not turn up any suspects either, Burns said.

On Thursday, Jan. 18 around 7 p.m., a 56-year-old woman was reportedly attacked by a young man in the 3000 block of 77th Avenue S.E. According to the police report, the suspect came up from behind the woman, grabbing her arm and covering her mouth while attempting to speak to her. The victim could not understand her attacker’s words and he attempted to pull her into some nearby bushes. At that point, the victim broke free and ran to a nearby parking lot to call police.

She described her attacker as an approximate 17-year-old male of average to thin build, short dark hair, dark eyes and a large rhinestone earring in his left ear. She also told police the attacker was possibly of Middle Eastern descent. Mercer Island police are asking anyone who has information regarding this incident to call the MIPD at (206) 232-3500.

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