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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Profile of 3 Citizen Activists

With the advent of the New Year, it s appropriate to give a “hat’s off’ to three citizen activists who represent what civic activity is doing to make this a better country.

J. Robert Hunter, a casualty actuary by profession, a former Federal Insurance Administrator and now head of the National Insurance Consumer Organization (NICO), could have gone into the insurance industry and made big money. Instead, he launched NICO and started becoming the goad and conscience of this industry.

One effort by Hunter is starting to save consumers millions of dollars. Starting with a detailed report on the obligation of state insurance departments to assess accurately investment income as part of the rate approval process, Hunter took his case to the usually industry-indentured National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). Four years later the NAIC finally agreed. Texas just became the first state to implement the NICO approach. As a result, Texas auto insurance rates will drop a quarter of a billion dollars in 1985 — a savings that will accrue annually to millions of motorists. He has congratulated Texas and asked the other 49 states’ commissioners to implement this reform. If you want to know more about NICO, the address is 344 Commerce Street, Alexandria, Virginia, 22314.

Lawyer Sam Simon heads the Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC). He’s been busy tracking the attempts by the telephone companies to triple your residential bill over the next three or four years. Part of this struggle centers on the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) attempt to allow the companies to charge you $2 per month just for the right to make long distance calls, whether or riot you actually do.

TRAC challenged the FCC to substantiate such a charge. Last month the FCC reduced its original proposal to $1 a month for the time being. That is $12 a year saved for every residential telephone customer in the United States. Sam Simon and a coalition of citizen groups can claim major credit for this result.

About five years ago Simon observed the FCC’s decision that AT&T was overcharging its customers by a $100 million on a particular rating formula. However, the agency made no move to require a refund. Using the law and a lot of stamina, Simon won a victory late last year when the FCC finally ruled that AT&T and local Bell companies would have to refund with interest the total of $178 million. Since this would amount only to pennies per customer, Simon is proposing that some of the money go into a trust fund which would fund consumer protection advocacy before the FCC in the future on a permanent basis. Such a fund would save telecommunications consumers tar more money over and over again than the amount in the fund.

Marcy Benstock in New York City heads the New York Clean Air Campaign. These days almost all her waking hours are devoted to fighting the most expensive highway proposal per mile in the world known as the Westway project. It would cost, before the inevitable overruns, a billion dollars a mile to build this unnecessary four to five mile highway on the west side of Manhattan island. The Westway plans, backed by a powerful combination of highway builders, developers, construction unions and politicians, include landfilling about 200 acres into the Hudson River.

With the taxpayers funding the highway, developers are drooling over the billions they expect to make utilizing the real estate created for high income condos and office buildings. The air pollution increases in an already congested area is not their concern.

Marcy Benstock, now in her tenth year of opposing Westway, has another view. She wants the tax dollars to go toward improving and expanding mass transit which serves the working people and poor of the City. She objects to the displacement of existing jobs in the area. With indefagitable drive, she has networked a movement that has kept the Westway backers on the defensive in the courts, in the reporting b:: the press and in the neighborhoods which would be affected. The Department of Commerce, the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency oppose the Westway project. But Ronald Reagan is being pressed to support Westway and the lobbying pressures for it keep building.

Active citizens who use the laws and the constitution of our nation to challenge abuse of power are the unsung patriots in our democracy. They work very long hours for little or modest economic return because they want to work on behalf of their fellow Americans. Once in a while, it would help if the mass media and our political leaders recognized their accomplishments.