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New PSC Commissioner Art Graham is ‘Big Into Problem Solving’

Some might be intimidated by the complex matters before the Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates electric and telephone companies in the state.

Not newly appointed Commissioner Art Graham.

Graham, a former Jacksonville City Councilmember and wastewater engineer by trade, told the News Service of Florida this week that he relishes digging into the PSC’s sometimes-dense subject matter.

“I’m big into problem-solving. That’s what drew me into politics,” he said in a telephone interview in between meetings with PSC staff. “The solution doesn’t always walk through the door. Sometimes you have to hammer it out.”

As a member of the five-member PSC, which comes under intense scrutiny when it weighs requests from the state’s investor-owned-utilities, there will be plenty for Graham to hammer out. One thing he is not trying to nail down, however, is the circumstances that led Gov. Charlie Crist to appoint him and former state Rep. Ronald Brisé to the panel earlier this month.

Crist appeared to bow to concerns raised by some lawmakers about a lack of diversity on the PSC by tapping Graham and Brisé, both black, to replace former PSC Commissioners David Klement and Benjamin Stevens.

“It’s a lot of inside baseball stuff that was beyond me,” Graham said. “I try to keep myself away from all that. I thought about going back and watching the tapes (of Klement and Stevens confirmation hearings), but I decided not to.”

What he missed was Klement and Stevens being voted off the panel by lawmakers. While race was mentioned – Klement and Stevens are white and the panel was all white at the time - others also noted that Klement and Stevens were part of a commission that voted to reduce rate increases for the state’s largest power companies. Consumer advocates howled that lawmakers had sided with influential utilities and Klement and Stevens became ratepayer-friendly martyrs.

Graham, who was praised by Crist upon his selection for being consumer-friendly too, vowed to be neither pro nor anti-ratepayer.

Jacksonville has a municipal utility that’s not regulated by the PSC in the way the investor–owned power companies are. That means Graham isn’t a consumer of the companies he will regulate.

“I’m not fighting rate increases or pushing rate increases because they don’t affect me personally. I don’t worry about having to answer to constituents and I don’t worry about having to answer to utilities,” Graham said. “I just look at the facts and do what the facts say.”

Graham is a native of suburban Atlanta, Ga. A full-time job at the PSC, which pays $130,036 a year, will be a sharp departure from elected offices he has held, but Graham said he would keep paying his electric bills on the First Coast.

“I’ll definitely be here during the week, but I don’t plan on moving my homestead from Jacksonville,” he said.

Graham said the possibility that he was appointed to the PSC because of his race did not bother him, especially since Brisé, a Haitian-American, was selected too.

“People (sometimes) want to be PC and pick somebody because they’re a woman or black or Hispanic, but then somebody can say you were just trying to fulfill a quota,” he said. “But if it’s not just one (selection), the governor just thought we were good choices.”

Graham also pointed out he has worked in the industries he will now regulate. Lawmakers had also criticized Klement and Stevens for not having backgrounds in the fields the PSC oversees.

Graham said the maelstrom of controversy that enveloped the PSC in 2009, in which staff and commissioners were accused of communicating improperly with utility officials, wasn’t something he thought much about.

“I try to come in with an open mind,” he said. I don’t know what happened in the past.”

Graham, who has already begun serving on the PSC, does not plan to have a formal investiture ceremony.

“For me it was enough to just put my hand on the Bible,” he said. “I didn’t go to the (graduation) ceremony in college. I just put in my hard work, said ‘thank you Lord and give me my degree.’”

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