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Former Black Caucus Leader Wants More Diversity on PSC

A former leader of the legislative black caucus lamented the lack of diversity on the Florida Public Service Commission Wednesday, pointing out the panel will have no minorities when Chairman Matthew Carter is replaced early next year.

“I think the (PSC nominating) commission does a wonderful job vetting candidates… I have real concerns right now,” Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, said during a meeting of the House Energy & Utilities Policy Council. “Based on the people who’ve been submitted, there will be no diversity on the Public Service Commission. I think that is not a good thing for the state because we’re a very diverse state, and we’re becoming more diverse everyday.”

Attention to the selection of PSC commissioners increased this fall when Gov. Charlie Crist picked two new members of the panel amid a swirl of allegations that regulators were too close to the companies they oversee. Carter and former PSC Commissioner Katrina McMurrian applied for second four-year terms on the panel, but both were effectively fired by the governor who declared it was time for a shake-up at the agency.

Crist got a fair amount of attention by arguing for more diversity in Florida courts earlier this year, but his shake-up of the PSC resulted in the panel’s lone African-American and one of its three women being replaced with two white men - David Klement, who has already joined the PSC, and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens, who will assume Carter’s seat in January.

At least two lawmakers, Sens. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey and Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, have announced plans to file legislation to change the way PSC members are picked, and Wednesday, the topic was on the agenda of a key House committee that oversees utility regulation.

After hearing a summary on the current selection process from PSC Nominating Council General Counsel Christiana Moore, Gibbons said that in the future he hoped the group would do more to make sure the five members of the PSC looked more like the Florida.

“I think any commission should reflect the state,” Gibbons said.

But Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola, who also chairs the Nominating Council, said the council always keeps diversity in mind when it sends names to Gov. Charlie Crist, even if it does not end up being reflected in the governor’s choices.

“The nominating council did put forth names to the governor which reflected diversity,” Murzin said. “At this point, it’s up to the governor to make the selections as he sees fit. We’ve discussed, in the past, geographic diversity, racial diversity, and all the rest, and there’s only so many ways to slice the pie.”

So far the talk of legislation to change the PSC nominating process has taken place mostly in the Senate, but Energy & Utilities chairman Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando, said Wednesday’s discussion was the first step in House action on the subject.

“It’s not clear at these early stages of our deliberations what the final direction, decree or mechanism is by which we’ll be moving forward, however this is a serious issue and one that calls for a well-thought out approach,” he said.

The Energy & Utilities Committee also heard Wednesday from PSC Executive Director Mary Bane, Florida Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, and Florida NAACP lawyer David Honig, who urged the panel to consider creating a new task force to implement a code of conduct for all state agencies, not just the PSC.

“The NAACP is highly interested in the ethical and governance issues surrounding the Florida PSC and other state agencies because, during this time of economic turbulence, all of our citizens rely on agencies like the PSC to follow their mandate and engage in good government,” Honig said in a statement prepared for the hearing. “Immediate action is needed to help restore the public trust and to get the Public Service Commission refocused on protecting the public interest.”

Honig told the lawmakers that the NAACP has no vested interest in particular cases before the PSC, but does have reasons to care that its proceedings are fair.

“In performing this critical watchdog role for Florida's consumers, a top priority is to protect the poor - especially those living in older energy-inefficient homes in inner cities,” he said.

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