PSC nominating committee rejects two sitting commissioners
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06/30/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Wednesday in Tampa, the Public Service Commission nominating council reviewed dozens of applications for two seats on the state board that regulates utilities. Among the rejected were two current Commissioners.

Since Gov. Charlie Crist nominated Chair Nancy Argenziano and Nathan Skop to the PSC in 2007, they were some of the panel’s strongest consumer advocates. Both were on the board when it unanimously shot down the two biggest utility rate increases in state history. State Senator Mike Bennett, the council chair, said the ouster was meant to create a more congenial environment within the commission.

"I think in that particular case, when we did the interviews with the last group of applicants, there were a lot of questions from the members of the commission to the applicants. How are you going to handle the dissension? How are you going to handle the attitudes and the wars between the different commissioners and stuff like that? So you could tell from this committee that was really high on their agenda. And since Commissioner Argenziano has been quoted in the press several times, I think a lot of people felt, you know what let's just start all over again. Let's just get a group of people that might go up there and get a congeniality with each other."

Six state legislators and six lay people constitute the PSC nominating council. Many have strong ties to the utility industry. For example, Sen. Bennett, a Republican from Sarasota, chairs the Committee Supporting Utilities and Competitive Commerce. Mike Hightower is a nominating council member who is not a lawmaker. He cited Florida’s need to overhaul its energy policy is a good reason to create the PSC from scratch, given that the state legislature has now effectively vacated four seats Governor Crist had tried to fill with consumer-oriented individuals.

"We have had opportunity, this group, to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough and create an environment going forward. And my other suggestion is that the Legislature, which I believe is the person, the group to do this can bring all the parties together and begin to do a thoughtful, deliberative approach that the state of Florida can have that."

The council voted yea or nay on 55 applicants this morning with no discussion. Eighteen of these will be interviewed in Orlando in August. Bennett said the candidate pool for the commission seats, which pay more than 136 thousand dollars annually, was too big for the council to more intensively review each applicant.

"We can't interview everybody who applied, we'd be here for the rest of our lives. So we have to narrow it down. And that's what this meeting is, it's a narrowing down process to who are we going to invite in for the final interview. The tough part comes when you look at the group of applicants that we've had. I mean these are just an unbelievably talented group of young people."

But state Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey, told WMNF that it’s clear that many in the state legislature care more about the utilities the PSC regulates than the consumers who would be feeling the squeeze of rate increases.

"Two commissioners that listened, took everyone's testimony and made a decision based on what was good for the state and good for the consumer. They cost us some billion-dollar utility companies that ask for hundred of millions of dollars in rate increases. They opposed these two commissioners. Now all of a sudden we find that if you are in any way pro consumer, your going to loose your job on the public service commission, and the utility companies win."

He said the senate’s refusal to confirm Crist’s two other nominees earlier this year confirms this.

"So four people that Gov. Crist appointed were all pro consumers. All four that voted against the rate increase that Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light requested, are now being removed by the Florida Legislator, so to suggest that there were other reasons. You know when you think about it, all four commissioners that were removed now by the Florida Legislature are four commissioners that were recommended by the Florida Legislature by the Governor. Yet all of a sudden they don't qualify, and I think sadly, many of my colleagues said, well since they didn't vote for the rate increase then they don't qualify."

Fasano added that today is a sad day, and that every consumer should be alarmed.

"They should be concerned that there's no one left, and there will be no one left on the Public Service Commission come January 1st of next year that is advocating on behalf of the consumer; that's listening to the consumer and the concerns that the consumers have. I have great concerns that were going to wind up with a public service commission after January 1st of next year that will put the utility companies first and the consumer's interest second. Every consumer in the state today should be concerned."

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Democrat from Tampa, was the only one who voted to keep Argenziano. Sen. Steve Oelrich and Council member Gerri McPherson voted for Skop, who told the Associated Press the commissioners’ ousters were payback for not favoring rate increases. In a statement issued today, PSC Chair Argenziano said she is not surprised, and that “Money talks in Tallahassee, and it speaks more loudly each campaign session.”

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