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PSC Chair Bans Texting

With an inbox full of complaints about inappropriate electronic communications between Florida Public Service Commission employees and officials of publicly-regulated utilities, Commission Chairman Matthew Carter hit send on policy banning text messages on PSC-issued phones.

In a Wednesday E-mail to PSC Executive Director Mary Andrews Bane obtained Thursday by the News Service of Florida, Carter called for all messaging systems other than E-mail to be disabled until their use can be reviewed by the commission.

“We are all aware of the controversy which has arisen regarding use of communications technologies within the commission,” Carter wrote. “While we are currently conducting a review of these technologies and how they relate to maintaining public records, I am directing that pending the outcome of this review the commission should disable all communications or messaging capabilities that are not captured through our existing E-mail system.”

The maelstrom Carter is trying to quell by axing text messaging began when a PSC employee admitted attending at a party hosted by a senior executive at Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest publicly-regulated utility. Later, as allegations that the panel was too close to the companies they regulate mounted, PSC Commissioner Nancy Argenziano fired her aide after newspaper reports last weekend that he had admitted giving his BlackBerry messaging information to an FPL attorney, which could allow the company official to text message the staffer during meetings.

Similarly, aides to Carter and PSC Commissioner Lisa Edgar were placed on administrative leave after newspaper reports they also had exchanged cell phone PIN information with utility employees.

The PSC conducted an internal review into the employee who attended the party, Director of Strategic Analysis and Governmental Affairs Ryder Rudd, and he resigned earlier this week. But the firestorm has shown little signs of dying down as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed last week it was reviewing complaints made against the panel and a member of the Senate Ethics and Elections committee called for hearings in which PSC commissioners were made to testify under oath.

The various flaps compelled Carter, who is up for re-nomination next year, to defend his three-and-a-half year tenure at the helm of the panel and identify specific votes against FPL, which has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

However, in banning text messaging, Carter acknowledged the perception of skirting state open government laws that could arise from using instant messaging instead of E-mail when communicating with participants in PSC proceedings. E-mails sent and received by state government officials in their work accounts are public records.

“I believe that current use of communication technologies within the commission is consistent with how they are utilized in other agencies, but we have an obligation to ensure that recordkeeping and public records requirements are clearly and consistently applied,” he wrote. “Upon the conclusion of our review, we will develop policies as warranted to provide necessary guidance to commission staff.”

Prior to Carter’s Wednesday E-mail, Commissioner Nathan Skop sent a message of his own Tuesday, calling on PSC Inspector General Steven Stotling to ban cell phones from the commission’s hearing room altogether. Skop, who first revealed Rudd’s party attendance and has been an outspoken critic of the appearance of conflict-of-interest, also said that instant messaging should be eliminated.

“Based upon the controversy currently surrounding the commission, and the institutional apathy toward implementing corrective action in a timely manner, I would respectfully request that you, in your capacity of Inspector General, consider implementing the proposed policies,” Skop wrote.

Skop said he hoped the actions ultimately taken by Carter would allow the commission to move on from the conflict-of-interest charges to a meaty fall agenda that will decide how much most Floridians pay for their electricity next year and how it is transported to them.

“Undoubtedly, this is a difficult time for the Commission,” he said. “Moving forward, it is my desire to avoid additional distraction and focus upon the substantial caseload currently pending before the commission.”

The PSC’s fall agenda includes a proposed $1.3 billion FPL rate increase, as well as a $500 million rate increase request from Progress Energy. The commission will also consider a $1.6 billion proposed FPL underground natural gas pipeline.

As Carter and Skop are considering how best to send the message that the PSC was not texting its way around impartiality, deliberations continue this week about whether or not the costs of new nuclear power plants planned by the state's two largest electric companies should be passed on to their customers.

The commission began Thursday morning the third of an expected four days of hearings to examine costs related to the construction of Florida Power & Light's Turkey Point Units 6 and 7 and Progress Energy Florida's Levy Units 1 and 2. The companies, which together power much of the state, want to pass some of the cost of building the plants on to ratepayers. FPL wants to add 67 cents a month per 1,000 kilowatt hours to generate $62.7 million and Progress Energy proposes adding $2.38 per 1,000 kilowatt hours to bring in $236.4 million.

A decision on the nuclear cost recovery is expected in October and final rulings in the base rate cases are likely to come in November. All the new rates would take effect in January 2010.

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