By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 14, 2010………. With Gov. Charlie Crist watching to make sure, his two nominees to the Public Service Commission cleared a confirmation hearing Wednesday.
Having watched his nominee to lead the state health care agency voted down earlier this week in a Senate committee, Crist showed up in person for the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee, which voted 8-1 to confirm Commissioners David Klement and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens, who Crist tapped last fall at the height of a conflict-of-interest scandal that rocked the beleaguered commission.
Both men, who have already begun serving on the PSC and joined the panel in voting against large rate increase requests from the state’s largest power companies, had been criticized in some quarters for lacking prior experience in the industries regulated by the commission.
“Both of these men are men of great integrity,” Crist told the committee. “That’s why I appointed them.”
However, Crist’s appearance did not foreshadow quick confirmations for his picks. Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, the lone vote against the two commissioners, took the governor to task for not re-appointing former PSC Chairman Matthew Carter, who had been the only African-American on the panel.
“What was your thinking on not re-appointing Matt Carter?” Smith asked Crist several times. Crist deflected the claim the PSC lacked diversity after his appointments of Klement and Stevens, saying repeatedly “I felt like we needed some new blood on the commission.”
After the governor yielded the floor to his PSC picks, Smith pressed further. He pointed out that Crist urged lawmakers earlier this year not to replace Public Counsel JR Kelly, who argues before the PSC on behalf of consumers, but ousted Carter, who he said was similarly qualified for his job.
“The governor sent a letter that said Mr. Kelly was a man of integrity, a member of the Florida Bar and we shouldn’t even think about looking at other applications,” he said. “But a man of integrity, a member of the Florida Bar and a member of the PSC…was removed because we needed new blood.”
Smith asked Klement if he felt comfortable serving on a commission that “does not have racial makeup that would remotely resemble Florida.”
“It’s not a matter of my comfort or not Senator,” Klement replied. “It’s the choice that the governor has made over the years with the present five members.”
Klement said that the PSC was diverse in other ways, saying “there’s more, I’d like to suggest, than one kind of diversity.”
“There’s geographic diversity – I come from southwest Florida, which has not had a representative on the PSC in quite a few years,” he said. “There’s skills diversity…we have several skills on the commission that are represented. There’s gender diversity obviously, and I would like to add that I represent age diversity. I think it’s important to have a mature point of view on the commission who understands how older Floridians feel. At age 70, believe me, I’m one of them.”
But Klement’s initial response to Smith’s question drew the ire of the other African-American member of the panel, Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. Joyner said she had voted for Klement as a member of PSC nomination council that recommended him to the governor, but was troubled by his statement.
“As a black woman who has always fought for justice and equality, I find the answer lacking,” she said. “Your response was that you were comfortable with a commission that represents the interests of all the people that is lacking in racial and ethnic diversity and that bothers me,” though she ultimately voted for Klement’s nomination.
Klement backtracked on the statement and defended his own record as a former journalist on civil rights issues.
“I don’t always speak swiftly on my feet as I should. I do better when I write, when I have a chance to think about every word that comes out,” he said. “I did not mean I’m comfortable with no diversity. I guess what I meant was that it was the governor’s decision, not mine. I do not know of any newspaper editor who has been more defensive of civil rights and of diversity as I was at the Bradenton Herald. I have written countless editorials in that regard.”
Klement’s fellow PSC nominee Stevens came under fire as well for statements made during a January hearing on a rate increase request in which he appeared to indicate that he was not in favor of any rate increases, not just the ones before the PSC at the time.
“I have a concern about the potential…if a party was able to show that…that you were predisposed one way or the other, that you would not be even-handed,” Sen. Joe Negron, R- Stuart, said. “When you stated ‘this is where I would be in the future,’ you’ve predicted how you will decide things in the future.”
Stevens attributed his statement to the economy, but quickly added that he would “have to go through it, look at where we are right now, and look at each issue.”
Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, criticized the political environment surrounding the whole question.
“We don’t want to set the price of bread, we don’t want to set the price of a car,” Haridopolos said. “The whole goal of Public Service Commission is to take the politics out of it. The voters put it in there to make sure that the politicians are not engaged and that we have competent persons who don’t care what the governor thinks, don’t care what the Legislature thinks, and look not short-term, but are going to be long term thinkers so we meet the energy needs of the state.”
Stevens acknowledged the political firestorm that surrounded the PSC when he and Klement were picked – “it was hard not to be aware of political environment,” he said before reiterating that he could be impartial.
The nominees were defended by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who is perhaps the vocal critic of the PSC and the publicly-regulated utilities in the Legislature.
“There were politics going on before you got appointed,” Fasano said to Stevens. Fasano added that the panel was “taking a person up today whose name was sent to the governor by…our colleagues.”
Another group of Fasano’s colleagues, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, will next weigh Stevens and Klement’s appointments.