TALLAHASSEE — Four newly-appointed Public Service Commission members were given the green light for confirmation by a Senate committee Monday, as the commission chairman was warned that he has more explaining to do after he socialized with the head of a water company he was regulating.
PSC Commission Chairman Art Graham, a former Jacksonville city commissioner, came under fire by a Senate committee for having drinks in a hotel lobby with the chief executive and lawyer from Aqua Utilities after the water company filed a rate case before the PSC. But the Senate Communications, Energy and Utilities Committee recommended he be confirmed anyway, along with three other new commissioners — Eduardo Balbis, a former West Palm Beach utility manager, Julie Brown, a Tampa attorney, and Ron Brise, a former Miami state representative.
"One thing I have not done is speak to this utility about anything that's pending before me,'' Graham told the committee. He dismissed the importance of the conversation he had at a Washington, D.C., hotel lobby in February and said: "I'm never going to do anything that is going to put this commission in a bad light."
Graham blamed former PSC commissioner Nathan Skop for "throwing rocks" at him by dredging up the incident and told the committee to take newspaper reports about it "with a grain of salt."
But that didn't satisfy Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the only committee member to vote against Graham's confirmation.
"What you did was wrong. You sent the wrong message to the people in this state,'' said Fasano, who noted that public perception of the PSC in the past is that commissioners are too close to the utilities they regulate. "People in this state are tired of what they see at the Public Service Commission."
Fasano scolded Graham for failing to recognize he "did something wrong" and Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, chastised Graham for behavior that was "clearly unacceptable." Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said she supported Graham but wanted the Senate to more carefully investigate the incident and ask Graham to explain himself further in the future.
The committee nonetheless recommended the full Senate confirm Graham and the others. Brise and Graham were appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist after the Senate last year rejected David Klement and Benjamin "Steve" Stevens. Crist had appointed them in an attempt to bring "new blood" to the commission.
When the PSC nominating council refused to re-appoint Commissioners Nancy Argenziano and Nathan Skop, Crist chose Brown and Balbis from a list of names. Gov. Rick Scott affirmed the appointments, which must be confirmed by the full Senate.
Unlike last year, when senators fired pointed questions at Crist's nominees in an attempt to disprove their qualifications, the committee asked few questions.
Fasano provided the only serious questions, asking the commissioners about whether they support a commission rule to prohibit any conversation with utility executives while a rate case is pending. None of them agreed. Balbis declined an answer. Brise suggested that such a rule "wouldn't necessarily" make a difference in public perception, and Brown said she already operates according to a judicial canon and refrains from conversations with utility executives but wouldn't agree to a commission rule.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.