TAMPA — Two of the three remaining utility regulators who rejected the largest electric rate increases ever sought in Florida were given their walking papers Wednesday, when a nominating council refused to interview them for reappointment.
The Public Service Nominating Council voted to interview 18 candidates for the two positions on the state utility board, but refused to interview Public Service Commission Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano or Commissioner Nathan Skop, Gov. Charlie Crist's two appointees to the state utility board.
"My suggestion is that we clear the board," council member Mike Hightower, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield lobbyist, said at the start of the hourlong meeting. He said it was time for the PSC to start over and create a commission whose members would work well together and with other agencies in the state, including the Legislature, to create a state energy policy.
Crist said he was enormously disappointed by the decision to bypass his two appointees.
"They have served with such dignity and great passion and intellect for ratepayers all over the state," he said.
Consumer advocates called the decision payback by the powerful utility lobby.
There was no discussion about the 55 candidates who applied for the $130,000-a-year job, and the rejection of Skop and Argenziano leaves only Commissioner Lisa Edgar, who was originally appointed by Jeb Bush. Edgar was accused by Skop of accepting text messages from Florida Power & Light lobbyists in the midst of a utility case.
In April, the state Senate ousted two of Crist's more recent appointees, Benjamin ''Steve" Stevens and David Klement, by refusing to confirm them.
Argenziano said in a prepared statement that the decision came as no surprise and blamed the Legislature and Associated Industries of Florida, a business trade group closely allied with FPL.
She said she fought to protect consumers: "That this should have cost me my job, given the decrepitude of the Legislature, was a foregone conclusion."
Skop, who holds degrees in engineering, business and law and formerly worked in nuclear power and renewable energy, said, "It is evident that the selection process had nothing to do with selecting the 'most qualified' applicants."
He decried what he called "the substantial role that money, influence, special interest, and politics play in the nominating process," and said the process needs substantial reform.
The nominating council is controlled by the state Legislature, with six legislators and a chairman, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Sarasota. Bennett currently chairs a political committee called the "Committee Supporting Utilities and Competitive Commerce." The council also includes six lay people, some of whom work with the utility industry.
The council rejected Argenziano and Skop because ''it appeared that they were more than willing to take the disagreement to the public," Bennett said after the meeting. "I just believe that you don't need to do that. You can disagree without being disagreeable. I don't feel like we ousted anybody. We were looking for a Public Service Commission that will be more congenial, more cooperative."
The panel has recommended eight names to Crist to replace Klement and Stevens. He has until July 15 to choose or the nominating council will do it for him. There will be interviews to pick replacements for Argenziano and Skop in August.
Argenziano is a former state senator from Crystal River who forced the debate over FPL and Progress Energy executive salaries during the rate case and cast the lone vote to ban utilities from passing on the planning costs of nuclear power plants. The only council member to vote for her confirmation was Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Skop, who led the commission to shut down FPL's Sunshine Energy Program after it spent close $11.4 million in donations from utility customers on administrative and marketing costs, received votes from two council members: Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Alachua, and Gerri McPherson, an administrator at Florida Atlantic University.
The decision was sharply criticized by the Florida Retail Federation, consumer advocates, the AARP and state Sen. Mike Fasano, who is a harsh critic of the utility industry.
"It is evident that unless you support the big utility companies you will never have a chance to continue serving on the Florida Public Service Commission," Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said in a statement.