By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Oct. 1, 2009……Gov. Charlie Crist remade the Public Service Commission on Thursday, ditching two sitting commissioners in favor of outsiders with no background in regulatory work or the industries the panel oversees, a move hailed by consumer advocates.
Neither PSC Chairman Matthew Carter nor Commissioner Katrina McMurrian will get a second four- year term on the panel with the appointments of Benjamin “Steve” Stevens and David Klement to the commission. They’ll start in January.
The housecleaning comes as the PSC considers proposed rate increases for the state’s two biggest power companies, and with the commission embroiled in a firestorm of allegations about potential conflicts of interest between commissioners and staffers and publicly-regulated utility representatives.
Carter and McMurrian, both appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2006, had applied to be reappointed and were in the running after being approved by the PSC’s nominating council.
But Crist instead went with the two outsiders, neither of whom has a background in electricity, telecomm, or other regulated industries.
Stevens, 44, is the chief financial officer in the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and Klement, 69, is a former journalist who heads the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee campus.
Part of their appeal to Crist may be that outsider status – as the PSC has come under fire for reports of staffers socializing with and exchanging cell phone messaging information with employees at the state’s largest power company, Florida Power & Light, allegations which emerged as the company was asking for a record rate increase.
Announcing the picks in Kissimmee in a hastily scheduled press conference far away from a Capitol press corps that may have asked questions about the controversy surrounding the PSC this fall, Crist said both Klement and Stevens brought real world experience to the PSC that would guide their decision making.
“As a journalist, editor and community leader, (Klement) has been involved in seeking solutions to the needs of his community,” Crist said in a statement. Klement worked as editorial page editor, business editor and city editor for the Bradenton Herald newspaper for more than 20 years. “His extensive experience in a wide variety of issues will give him an appropriate perspective when considering business and consumer matters that come before the commission.”
“Steve has a strong track record of integrity in fiscal management and understands the importance of careful stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” Crist said of Stevens. “His ability to carefully evaluate financial reporting should be a strong asset to the utilities consumers of Florida.”
Both Stevens and Klement said they were honored by the appointment and pledged to look out for consumers.
And the move was quickly applauded by opponents of rate increases and environmentalists who push the PSC to enact tougher renewable energy rules for power companies.
“We believe it’s a strong statement for consumers, both residential and commercial,” said Rick McAllister, head of the Florida Retail Federation, which has opposed the current rate increase proposals by FPL and Progress Energy Florida.
Florida Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Project director Gerald Karnas agreed, saying that he had known Klement since high school and the newest commissioner was “a man of the highest quality, character, ethics and judgment,” all areas the current PSC has been hammered in by critics lately.
“This is the perfect time for a pick like David, who is going to put the public interest first because he’s done that his entire life,” Karnas told the News Service of Florida. “The governor deserves kudos for reshaping the PSC.”
One leading Senate PSC critic, Sen. Mike Fasano, applauded the governor’s decision to turn to “fresh faces” Thursday. Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said in an interview that the appointments were “the beginning of a clean sweep at the Public Service Commission.”
The odd people out of that sweep of the PSC, Carter and McMurrian told reporters during a break in Thursday’s hearing for the Progress rate increase request that they were not surprised by the governor’s decision. Carter said that politics, accentuated by the governor’s ongoing campaign for the U.S. Senate, likely played a role in the decision.
“The governor did what governors do. He exercised his prerogative,” Carter said. “These things happen. This is the political season and political things happen during the political season.”
McMurrian agreed, saying she thought political calculations were likely “some sort of a factor.”
Neither outgoing commissioner had clear post-PSC plans in the immediate aftermath of Crist’s decision to give their seats to Klement and Stevens, and both said they were thankful for the four-years they had as members of the panel.
Not only did Crist shake up the roster of the five-member PSC, but his decision to not re-appointment Carter and McMurrian will elevate Commissioner Nancy Argenziano to chairman of the PSC next year. A former state senator, Argenziano has long cultivated a reputation as a firebrand and has drawn the ire of both members of the industries the PSC regulates and sometimes her fellow commissioners.
Contacted by the News Service earlier this week about that possibility, Argenziano said she was not necessarily eager to assume the PSC gavel, but quickly added that it would be a big change to the commission’s way of doing business because she was “fair.” Argenziano attributed opposition to her becoming PSC chair from members of the utility lobby to her “fairness.”
The news of Crist’s decision to effectively fire two sitting PSC commissioners became public while the panel was in the midst of deliberations of a $500 million rate increase request from Progress, on which a decision is expected before Klement and Stevens will be sworn-in to the PSC.
Hearings will continue later this month and again in January on the proposed FPL rate increase. The new commissioners will have to catch up on testimony that’s already been heard because they will be on the commission when that case comes to a vote.
Klement and Stevens will have be confirmed by two Senate committees.