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Gelber Wants Cabinet to Help Pick PSC Members

As a conflict-of-interest squall at the Florida Public Service Commission continues, another state senator said Thursday that he would file a bill to change the way members of the panel are selected.

Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said his proposed legislation would allow the members of the Cabinet to appoint one member each and the governor to pick two commissioners, a change from the current all-gubernatorial appointment set-up. Gelber said his bill would also allow the governor and Cabinet to appoint the PSC’s general counsel, which is currently picked by a legislative committee, and would require electronic communications between PSC staff and parties before it to be preserved and considered open records.

“The PSC operated in many respects similar to a court,” he said in a statement. “In this quasi-judicial role, it is important that ex-parte communications are limited and all communications be reviewable by the public. I strongly believe that Floridians have a constitutional right to access all information pertaining to their government’s business.”

Gelber, who is also a Democratic candidate for attorney general, echoed Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum in framing his bill in populist terms.

“Floridians are facing hard economic times and it is especially important they have confidence that they are paying no more than they need to on their utility bills,” Gelber said. “Enhancing accountability by opening up electronic records should help. Also, engaging the entire Cabinet in the appointment process should bring greater attention and oversight to this critical process.”

McCollum, who is the likely Republican gubernatorial nominee, said this earlier this week that his office would begin automatically retaining messages sent between state BlackBerry phones, which have been at the center of a PSC firestorm because critics say they skirt public record laws by not being readily available later.

Meanwhile, the PSC, which is trying to decide on a proposed rate increase for Florida Power & Light, said it needs more time and scheduled more hearings on the issue next month. PSC hearings on the proposal, which had been scheduled to end Thursday, have been overshadowed by some of the most intense scrutiny the panel has faced in years as conflict of interest and public records issues have come up and been made public.

The ongoing deliberations about the $1.3 billion proposed rate increase from FPL, the state’s largest power company, have been upended this week by revelations that the company spent more than $50 million on private charter flights that sometimes carried elected officials over the past four years. Critics argued that the company did not need a rate increase if it could afford the flights, but FPL lawyers said the planes were necessary to their business operations.

Another frequent PSC critic, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said last week that he would also file a bill to change the PSC selection process, though Fasano wants to end appointments altogether. Fasano told the News Service that he was planning to file a bill that would end appointments to the panel in favor of statewide elections.

Prior to 1978, the then three-member PSC was elected, but beginning in 1979, the PSC was expanded to its current five-member format and its members were appointed to the panel by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The move was made to remove politics from utility regulation, but critics like Fasano, and now Gelber, have argued the effort had been unsuccessful.

The legislative attempts to change the way the PSC is selected come as two sitting commissioners are up for re-appointment next year and as the panel weighs base rate increases for the state’s two largest power companies for the first time in years. Gov. Charlie Crist suggested recently that he would watch the way PSC chairman Matthew Carter and Commissioner Katrina McMurrian voted on the proposed rate increases for FPL and Progress Energy, which he opposes, before he decides if they should be given another four-year term on the panel.

Carter and McMurrian recently survived the first step toward returning to the panel next year. Appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2006 for four-year terms that end this year, the pair were among the nominees sent to Crist by the PSC's nominating council earlier this month.

Other candidates included former PSC inspector general John Grayson, University of South Florida Institute for Public Policy & Leadership director David Klement, Escambia County Sheriff's Department Chief Financial Officer Benjamin Stevens III and former PSC staff attorney Felicia West.

The increased PSC scrutiny from senators comes as the commission is being pummeled by conflict-of-interest questions that started when a PSC employee admitted attending at a party hosted by a senior FPL executive.

Allegations that the panel was too close to the companies it regulates continued to mount as one PSC commissioner fired her aide after newspaper reports 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, and two other aides were placed on administrative leave. That employee, Larry Harris, however, has now been hired as a senior attorney in the PSC general counsel’s office.

In addition to the base rate cases, the PSC is scheduled to determine this fall whether or not the costs of new nuclear power plants planned by FPL and Progress Energy at Turkey Point and in Levy County respectively should be passed on to their customers. 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. The commission will also consider a $1.6 billion proposed FPL underground natural gas pipeline.

The rate hearing for FPL had been slated to end Thursday, but the PSC added three more days of hearings, Oct. 21-23.

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