ORLANDO — Gov. Charlie Crist was given eight candidates to choose from Thursday to replace his two ousted appointees to the Public Service Commission.
The list includes two black nominees, a state legislator from North Miami and a City Council member from Jacksonville. A former state senator and the former executive director of the embattled agency also made the cut.
After a daylong meeting interviewing 28 candidates, the Public Service Nominating Council took only one vote and recommended giving the governor eight names, instead of the six they are required to send, because each candidate received at least seven of the possible 11 votes needed to make the cut.
Crist will have 30 days to chose from the following:
• Former state senator and current PSC general counsel Curt Kiser.
• Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs.
• Rep. Ron Brisé, D-North Miami.
• Jacksonville City Council member Art Graham.
• Former Missouri PSC commissioner Susan Murray.
• Tallahassee lawyer and economic development consultant Charles Ranson.
• Kevin Wiehle, a Senate staffer and top analyst on utility issues.
• Former PSC executive director Mary Bane.
Most received between seven and nine votes out of a possible 11, but the clear favorite was Wiehle, who received 10 votes.
Said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Sarasota, chairman of the council: "We've set forth a slate that's very diverse, and I think the governor will have a good list to choose from."
The two vacancies emerged on the powerful utility board after the state Senate rejected Crist's previous nominees — former Bradenton newspaperman David Klement and Pensacola accountant Benjamin "Steve" Stevens — in the wake of the PSC rejection of the largest rate increase request in state history. The four-year post pays $130,000.
Senators argued that Crist's picks were either unqualified or lacked ethnic diversity. Klement and Stevens said their rejection was political payback from the powerful utility companies that wanted the rate increase, along with retribution for Crist, who antagonized the Republican-led Legislature with vetoes of their top-priority bills and fled the party to run for U.S. Senate as an independent.
Senators said they wanted the governor's appointees to have deep technical expertise, but the list includes people with as many political connections as they have technical credentials.
The questions from the panel were broad and general, and gave a window into what the panel considers the problems with the PSC: its loss of integrity and the fact that the three remaining commissioners don't like one another.
"What do you believe is the biggest challenge confronting the Public Service Commission and what skill set do you believe will help alleviate it?" asked Mike Hightower, a Blue Cross/Blue Shield lobbyist, to nearly every one of the candidates. He frequently added that there is a deep "divisiveness that has cast a cloud over the PSC" and asked how the candidate would change it.
Bennett pointedly asked Bane, the former PSC executive director, if recent conflicts with some commissioners would make it hard for her to resolve differences. Commissioner Nathan Skop had been critical of Bane's handling of several issues, challenging her integrity.
Bane said that in her 30 years at the PSC, "I never had a commissioner question my integrity until these last few months." She agreed, however, that the infighting has ''harmed the agency" and that "perception is reality."
Wiehle said the fundamental question before the PSC is "how to pay for tomorrow's needs with today's budget."