The opinion of the court was delivered by: GESELL
In this action, plaintiffs
seek a judgment declaring unlawful rate increases promulgated by the Department of the Interior for electrical power sold to them as customers of the Central Valley Project in California hereinafter "CVP"). They also pray for an injunction prohibiting the defendants from continuing to implement such rate increases. Under the terms of an agreement between the parties, the funds which have accumulated in an escrow account since April, 1974, representing the amount of the challenged rate increase, would, following any appellate review, be returned.
It is alleged that the procedures followed by the Department prior to setting the new rates failed to comply with statutory requirements and deprived them of due process, and contended on the merits that the rates finally set are inconsistent with the applicable statutes. The procedural issues are before the Court on plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, the material facts are not in dispute, and the issues have been thoroughly briefed and argued.
The procedural deficiencies alleged are, first, that the Department of Interior failed to comply with 5 U.S.C. § 552(a) (1)(B)-(C) in that it failed to publish in the Federal Register procedures to be followed in the rate-setting process; second, that the actual procedures employed by the Department were contrary to the Wunderlich Act, 41 U.S.C. § 321 et seq. ; and, third, that the procedures were, in any event, so deficient that they denied due process.
Background and Proceedings
Plaintiff companies are non-profit entities which purchase power from CVP and distribute it to in excess of 80,000 retail customers in a service area with a population approaching 200,000 people. Since these concerns automatically pass along rate increases to consumers in the form of higher electrical bills,
the challenge to the rate increase is, in effect, on behalf of consumer-customers. Under the Federal Reclamation Laws, municipalities and rural electric cooperatives such as plaintiffs are entitled to preference in purchasing power from Bureau-operated projects. 43 U.S.C. § 485h(c). Moreover, the Department interprets its mandate as requiring it to furnish power "at the lowest possible rate to consumers consistent with sound business principles." See 16 U.S.C. § 825. In a general way, as applied to this case, this standard means that rates must be sufficient over a 50-year period to recoup the Government's investment in each given facility. The Department noted that CVP had not been charging rates sufficient to accomplish this recoupment and felt that an increase of some kind was essential.
As early as 1969, the Bureau began to include projected rate increases in 1975 and 1980 in its rate and repayment studies for the CVP project. In January, 1973, the Department decided a rate increase should be placed in effect and began the process which culminated in this litigation. This is the first case of this kind in at least 30 years and the Bureau had no established procedures or practical hearing experience in the area.
The rate increase at issue in this case was promulgated by the Department in a press release dated November 1, 1973, to take effect in two stages: a 28 percent average increase effective April 1, 1974, with a second increase to follow in January, 1977. The customers who buy their power from the plaintiffs will pay between $1.75 and $2 million in additional electrical bills annually as a result of the first step of the increase.
In determining the amount of the increase the Bureau decided not to promulgate or adhere to a formal code of procedural rules to govern this and other rate proceedings. Instead, it felt that informal procedures developed on an ad hoc basis as the matter went along could better serve efficiency and "cut red tape." Since the CVP serves only 54 customers directly, face-to-face meetings between experts working on the technical phases of detailed accounting and hydrological background studies were deemed feasible.
The plaintiffs in this case received a great deal of information concerning the proposed rate increase by two methods. First, they received information which was transmitted generally to all the customers of the CVP. Second, they received extensive, detailed information in response to numerous specific requests made by them to the Department over a substantial period of time and almost continuously until decision. This information was requested in writing, orally and over the telephone and was supplied, depending on its nature, by all these means. No request for data was refused.
However, in view of the naturally adversarial relationship of the parties and the absence of a code of procedures to define the ground rules, the process gradually became unmanageable. Thus, a massive computer study updating hydrological data for the 1954-1971 period, a crucial input to the ratesetting process, was made available to plaintiffs' experts only four days prior to the deadline for submitting written comments. The Bureau has since conceded to Congress that it "goofed" in failing to define in advance clear procedures for making in-depth background materials available.
On June 8, 1973, a letter was sent to all customers of CVP by the Bureau inviting them to attend an open hearing on July 10, 1973, in Sacramento, California. Interested parties were invited to express their views on the proposed rate increase and were urged to submit written statements in addition to oral presentations. An agenda was attached. Included with those letters was a 32-page brochure setting forth the Bureau's proposal. Included in the brochure was a print-out of a rate and repayment study performed for CVP in May, 1973.
On May 7, 1973, Mr. George Spiegel, one of the attorneys for plaintiffs in this proceeding, wrote to Secretary Morton requesting, among other things, that the procedures which would be used to enable interested parties to present evidence and argument be detailed. On June 1, 1973, Deputy Assistant Secretary ...