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Meeting between Aqua Utility executives and state official raises concerns

The chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission met with two Aqua Utility executives for about an hour over drinks during a conference in Washington, D.C., even as the commission is considering a request to allow the utility to collect nearly $3.8 million more from customers in Florida.

That meeting inspired a Zephyrhills man this week to ask chairman Art Graham to recuse himself from the review, arguing he gave the appearance of impropriety.

"The conduct of Commissioner Graham clearly does not promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the commission," wrote Dave Bussey, an Aqua customer in Zephyr Shores.

A South Florida Sun-Sentinel report about the February meeting quoted Graham as saying, "I paid for my own drink." He also said the pending rate case never came up during the conversation.

A statement from Aqua says the "brief, introductory conversation focused on general topics unrelated to Aqua's rate case or any other business before the Florida Public Service Commission."

But Bussey said that's not the issue. "It's not a matter of what they talked about," he said. "They're supposed to maintain the appearance of objectivity and independence."

Graham did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Aqua serves 23,500 customers in 17 Florida counties. In Pasco, it provides water for residents of Jasmine Lakes and Palm Terrace on the west side, and Zephyr Shores on the east.

In approving an earlier rate increase, the commission created a tiered rate system that left some communities paying significantly higher bills than others. Now, the company wants to establish uniform rates for all of its systems.

A water customer who uses 5,000 gallons a month would owe about $50 a month under the new proposal. For customers in Jasmine Lakes, that would roughly double their water bills.

But customers in Palm Terrace and Zephyr Shores, who already pay about $52 for $5,000 gallons of water, would get a slight break on their monthly bills, according to documents sent to the Public Service Commission.

Typical sewer bills for all three Pasco communities would go from about $71 to $85.

J.R. Kelly, the head of the Office of Public Counsel that represents consumers, said his office likely would not formally respond to Bussey's request. He said conferences like the one in February are useful, but refused to comment on the meeting Graham had with Aqua officials.

"I'm not going to talk about how other people should act," he said. "I try never to put myself in a situation that would lead to an appearance of impropriety in any way."

In 2009, the PSC came under fire after a staffer partied at the home of a utility executive and commissioners were trading BlackBerry messages with other utility officials using a system that avoids a paper trail. The controversy prompted lawmakers to file a bill to crack down on PSC ethics violations. The bill passed the Senate last year but died in the House.

Last summer, South Florida utility giant Florida Power and Light requested that then-Commissioner Nathan Skop recuse himself from all of FPL's utility cases. It was the first such request in several years. Skop refused, and the utility appealed the decision to the First District Court of Appeal. Soon after, Skop left the board after a legislator-dominated panel declined to renominate him for a new term.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Meeting between Aqua Utility executives and state official raises concerns 03/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 8:56pm]
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