TALLAHASSEE — Six months ago, David Klement and Steve Stevens were looking for jobs in classified ads and on Internet job boards.
In January, they will sit in judgment of two of the largest utility rate cases in Florida history as the newest members of the Public Service Commission, the five-person utility regulatory board.
Klement, a former Bradenton journalist who headed a think tank in Sarasota, and Stevens, an accountant and bar owner from Pensacola, were the surprise appointments to the PSC in October by Gov. Charlie Crist amid a whirlwind of controversy at the agency over whether regulators were too close to utilities.
Progress Energy has asked for a $500 million rate increase and Florida Power & Light has requested a $1.3 billion increase in its base rates.
The stakes are high. It is the first time since 1985 that the state panel has decided a major rate case. The ruling will shape the future of energy investment in Florida and have a multibillion-dollar impact on the future operations of both companies.
Neither Klement nor Stevens expected to make the cut when they applied in June. Most previous commissioners have had ties to the PSC or the utility industry and the support of influential legislators.
Klement, 69, says he was a "wild card" among the six candidates presented to Crist, although his two local congressmen and three state legislators wrote letters of recommendation.
Stevens, 44, said he was "truly surprised" to be called for an interview.
But for Crist, they were the only two candidates with two important qualities: They hadn't worked at the PSC and they had no ties to the utility industry. That's why, the governor said, he picked them for the $133,000-a-year, four-year term that begins Jan. 2. He said it was time to "clean house."
"I wanted people who had little or nothing to do with some of these issues, who could get a new look and a fresh start," Crist said.
Klement and Stevens must hit the ground running. Both say they have spent hours listening to testimony from rate case hearings and wading through stacks of documents. The votes are scheduled for Jan. 11 for Progress Energy and Jan. 13 for FPL.
Klement says 32 years as editorial page editor for the Bradenton Herald and writing more than 10,000 editorials prepared him well. "You have to get it right away, do the research you need, and produce something cogent by deadline," he said. "With weeks and weeks to prepare, as I will have, including the holidays, I'll be up to speed."
Klement retired from the newspaper in 2007 to become director of the University of South Florida's Public Policy and Leadership Institute. He stepped down for the PSC job.
Stevens, the former budget director for Escambia County Sheriff Ron McNesby, also says he will be ready.
"I will listen to both sides, take the information from staff, put it all together and make my decision," he said.
Klement started the job early, picked by Crist to fill the last two months of Commissioner Katrina McMurrian's term after she resigned when the governor didn't reappoint her. After two days on the job, he voted with the rest of the PSC to delay the rate case until January and wrote a 2½-page summary justifying his decision.
Both Klement and Stevens have already found themselves defending their qualifications for the job. After taking office, they must be confirmed by the Senate in the spring. Both said they are aware that their confirmations could be opposed by the utilities.
Stevens, the former president of the Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants, has faced rigorous scrutiny. Within hours of his appointment, he found himself being criticized by bloggers and others over drink promotions at the college bar he owns with a partner.
Rick's Cabana caters to students at the University of West Florida and Pensacola Community College and promotes "bladder bust" contests and other drinking games. One patron posted Internet pictures of her "Dominatrix" birthday party held at the bar.
Stevens, who has a real estate license, said the promotions are the bartenders' ideas.
"I'm not going to micromanage it," he said.
Stevens called the bar a legitimate business with 22 employees.
"When we first bought it, there were some things we needed to do to clean it up, and we've done a lot of that," he said.
The business has the support of his mother, wife and kids. "They know it's not a strip club," Stevens said.
Crist defended Stevens, noting that his own grandfather once owned a bar. "What's wrong with owning a small business?" Crist said. "He certainly will be aware of the cost of his utility bill."
Crist, who has consistently opposed any increase in base rates for the utilities, said he is unlikely to back down. He also believes Klement and Stevens will make their own decisions.
"I am confident they will use their independent analysis to have a policy that is fair and honest and best for the people," Crist said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]