In battle against a ‘beast,’ watchdog group members find camaraderie, an unlikely customer service rep, and sometimes relief
Hundreds of people with concerns over their power bills never find their issues resolved when they call Southern California Edison. But they do get help when they connect with one of their neighbors.-
Nichole McCall’s day job is in the visual arts, but she may have never visualized what her life would be like today.
Since last summer, the Palm Springs resident has been serving as a customer service agent, detective, legal advisor, lobbyist, and counselor for hundreds of Coachella Valley residents. She is paid for none of her efforts, but still reaps rewards.
“I try to devote a little bit of time each day,” McCall explained last week via Zoom. “There are so many seniors affected that I just can’t say no.”
McCall is the founder of a group now known as Edison Watchdogs. What started as a handful of neighbors on Nextdoor and Facebook calling themselves “Southern California Edison Overcharges in Coachella Valley” (profiled earlier in The Post here) is now an organization more than 500 strong. Their mission? Slay the beast that is Southern California Edison (SCE), the power provider to 15 million people that employs more than 13,000.
The utility company might be wise to hire McCall. Her efforts at turning hundreds of crowdsourced complaints into usable data — first intended to help with a possible class action lawsuit — has resulted in often easily explained reasons, and possible solutions, for problems that can take weeks or months for SCE to dig into, if they elect to dig at all.
“I’ve realized how alienated and victimized people are feeling,” McCall said as she reflected on her efforts. “There are a lot of people out there suffering alone.”
Watching McCall listen to and advise a group member from Desert Hot Springs over Zoom last week was like watching an efficient assembly line. McCall runs through a checklist of information SCE might ask for (prior bills, a meter number), explanations SCE might reach for when first contacted (dirty solar panels, an older meter unable to work with the current SCE system), and more. By the time the call is over, the end product is not a mass-produced widget or a vehicle heading off to a dealership. What McCall delivers is hope that the customer with an unusually high solar power settlement bill from SCE had enough information to successfully argue her case.
McCall certainly delivered hope for Celia Garton. The Sunmor Estates resident went six months without receiving a bill from SCE (one of the most common issues reported in the group), and when she did receive a bill it appeared to be for another customer’s meter.
“Last November when SCE replaced a meter that was malfunctioning they transposed meter numbers so that my meter was being read as another meter elsewhere in the Valley and I was being charged for that person’s usage,” Garton explained. “That’s when the bills stopped and they recognized there was a problem. But nobody could give me any answers.”
Garton discovered the watchdog group on Nextdoor, joined, and soon after McCall and others went to work solving her case. As of last week, Garton said, she now has a bill, a credit on that bill, and has been “hounded by SCE.”
“They are calling to make sure everything is OK after not responding for months,” she said, adding that her sense is that “something’s shaking somewhere.”
Garton is thankful that Edison Watchdogs exists and that it may have helped bring attention to her situation. But like many others in the group, she’s frustrated it needs to exist at all.
“It worried me, actually, because I thought, ‘What’s going on? This is not just an isolated case. This is a huge problem,’” she said of the moment she discovered the group. “Certainly a big utility company has got its act together to give me accurate billing. I have no confidence in my electrical situation whatsoever.”
SCE has tried to ease that sense, explaining earlier that the utility company’s data shows a 99.53% accuracy rate among the millions of bills it sends out. Because it’s easier for the small portion of customers who receive an incorrect statement to connect via social media, an SCE spokesperson said it may appear billing errors and other issues are more widespread than they actually are.
Edison Watchdogs doesn’t have a spokesperson. And McCall knows that ultimately, in order to bring an investigation into SCE that might result in reforms to its business practices, the group would need not just a public relations team, but an army of attorneys gathering testimony and data from customers throughout Southern California. Attorneys who have agreed to consider working with the group have advised that due to SCE’s complicated business, thousands of billable hours could be spent preparing a case.
“The complexity of the issues is what attorneys are having issues with,” said McCall. “Our job is to gather the data. We are trying to to do as much as we can and then hand over the baton.”
McCall doesn’t expect that hand off any time soon.
“This is a fossilized beast that really isn’t used to accountability,” she said of SCE. “They’re essentially getting away with this via the complexity. They’re just counting on the fact I’ll get tired of this.”
Garton, for one, is hoping McCall and other members of the group find the energy to continue the fight.
“I’m very thankful to her,” Garton said of McCall. “It would be just a bunch of us complaining on Nextdoor about our utility bills if she hadn’t done this. She’s the only one who stepped up. She’s the only one who really took the bull by the horns.”
Potential lawsuit and reforms aside, McCall said encouragement from Edison Watchdogs members like Garton, and the small victories the group has achieved so far, may have to be enough for now.
“It’s actually really empowering for people,” said McCall. “It allows you to feel as if you have some control over your bills. If something special grows out of this, it’s the connections that are made and the people feeling like they have somebody to talk to and feel like they are getting heard.”
More information: Interested in joining Edison Watchdogs or getting help with your SCE issue? McCall has created a site with all the information you need. Visit that site at https://linktr.ee/edisonwatchdogs