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Crist Wants J.R. Kelly to Stay in Public Counsel Post

Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, who represents consumers in utility rate cases before the Public Service Commission, should remain in the position, Gov. Charlie Crist said Thursday.

Following a speech at a Tallahassee hotel, Crist said Kelly's efforts in arguing against rate hikes for the state's two largest utilities have earned him the right to keep the job. Kelly is currently being vetted by a Senate committee, which has opened up his position to applications.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, co-chair of the committee tasked with overseeing the public counsel, has said that Kelly very well may keep the job, but that he should have to be compared to other applicants. Crist is lobbying lawmakers in favor of Kelly, though.

"He's proven himself a true public servant," Crist said Thursday about Kelly. "This is a good man who is trying to do what is right for the people of Florida."

In a Feb. 10 letter to Constantine and Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight Co-Chairman Rep. J.C. Planas, Crist said his support for Kelly was not just based on his recent successful fight against a proposed $1.3 billion rate increase for Florida Power & Light and a $499 million hike for Progress Energy.

“I want to commend him, not only for the preparation of the two recent significant cases before the Public Service Commission, but also for the outstanding work he has done over the years,” Crist wrote to Constantine and Planas.

“I strongly recommend that Mr. J.R. Kelly be retained as Florida’s Public Counsel,” Crist’s letter continued.

Senate President Jeff Atwater was not as effusive earlier this week about Kelly as Crist was, but he appeared to signal the governor would get his desired outcome. Atwater said he'd heard rumors that he was the one who wanted Kelly fired and said it absolutely wasn't true, though he granted that allowing the committee to be formed may have given someone that impression.

"I would venture to guess Mr. Kelly is going to remain as public counsel," Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said in a sit-down interview with the News Service of Florida and other Tallahassee media outlets.

Atwater also said he thinks the term of the Public Counsel ought to be longer than the current two year term.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Larry Cretul was more reserved about Kelly’s prospects.

“The speaker’s position is that he would like to hear and see what (the committee will) do on this,” said Jill Chamberlin, a spokeswoman for Cretul. “If we have a joint committee on this, then that’s their job.”

Asked for a response to Crist’s endorsement of Kelly, Joint Public Counsel Oversight Committee Co-Chairman Planas said the search for other applicants for the post was not indicative of a desire in the Legislature to sack Kelly.

“I’m still kind of baffled as to why everyone seems to think that J.R.’s not getting re-appointed,” Planas told the News Service. “That is the furthest thing from the truth. I think it’s a worthy exercise to listen to what’s out there. Listening to other ideas is only going to help J.R.’s performance.”

Planas agreed with Atwater that the application process was likely to end in Kelly being re-appointed, though he said it was too early in the process to call anyone a favorite since applications have not actually been submitted yet.

“To say that he’s favorite would say that he’s in contention,” Planas said. “I think we’re not even at that point. If there is someone who will be even (tougher) on the utilities, obviously we will look at it.”

Kelly, who has said he will seek the post again, said that he did not know the governor would come out in favor of his reappointment, saying he was “very humbled and surprised” at the endorsement.

“I had no idea about this letter from the governor,” Kelly said in a telephone interview. “I’ve not spoken to anybody. I’ve met with members of the Joint Oversight committee and the meetings have all been positive. No member of Legislature has voiced to me any problems with the way I’m doing my job or any concerns.”

“If they have some, they haven’t shared them with me,” Kelly concluded.

He also reiterated his desire to remain on the job, saying “I’m very committed to remaining the public counsel.”

“Whatever the process is, I’m ready to go through it and hopefully be confirmed,” he said. “I feel my office has done a very good job representing consumers these last two years and I’m looking forward to continuing in that direction.”

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