In the cavernous hearing room where the Public Service Commission regulates the state's utility companies, the new chairwoman has added a piece of decor: ropes.
Two beige ropes, attached to pedestals, now keep lawyers, lobbyists and consumers from approaching the dais during breaks in meetings where the five commissioners sit in judgment over the state's electric, water, sewer and phone companies.
Commission chairwoman Nancy Argenziano says the ropes symbolize a shift in policy at the PSC: No more private conversations between the commissioners, their direct staff members and utilities.
"There's a right way and a wrong way to talk with us," she said. "We had these ropes for a while and never used them. It was time."
Last fall, the commission was rocked by reports that a top PSC staffer attended a Kentucky Derby party at the home of a Florida Power & Light executive in the midst of the company's rate case and that other PSC staffers gave FPL private codes to send electronic BlackBerry messages to PSC commissioners. Gov. Charlie Crist replaced two of the commissioners. The PSC lobbyist resigned.
The commission has since banned text messaging and BlackBerrys from the hearing room, imposed strict rules on staff members and recommended legislation that would change the way it handles communications with utility officials.
A bill by Sen. Mike Fasano would bring all communications between utilities and regulators into the sunshine. Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican, moved the measure quickly through two committees in February and expects a Senate vote during the first week of session.
"My goal is to get it quickly out of the Senate and let's see what happens in the House," he said.
Still uncertain is the fate of the companion House bill by Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, or another measure by Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, which would require witnesses at PSC hearings to reveal whether they have financial ties to utilities.
Under the Senate bill, PSC members would have to operate like judges, refraining from all discussion with parties in a pending case unless the conversation is in the open.
Any other communication would have to be recorded and made part of the record. The revamped PSC endorsed Fasano's bill and offered ways to strengthen it. Argenziano and commissioner Nathan Skop, another critic of some of the agency's practices, held conference calls with Fasano and his staff to tweak the measure.
The result would require that any communication between utility officials and commissioners or their direct staff members be placed on the record or conducted in a public forum. Commissioners and staff who violate the ban could be fined $5,000. Utility companies who violate the rule could also be fined.
The measure will cover communication from elected officials, such as the governor, Legislature and Cabinet officials, as well as anyone who works for a utility or someone who is paid to oppose a utility's request.
Skop called the changes "long overdue." But Argenziano, a former state senator and representative for 11 years, doesn't believe the measure goes far enough. She wants to end lawmakers' control over the committee that nominates PSC commissioners. The 12-member Public Service Nominating Council nominates candidates for the commission, the governor appoints them and the state Senate confirms them.
Argenziano said she has watched legislators attempt to influence PSC decisions by threatening commissioners with the prospect of not being confirmed.
She admits, however, that it's unlikely legislators will agree to curtail their clout.
Sen. Mike Haridopolos, a Melbourne Republican and incoming Senate president, said he wants to strengthen the educational requirements for PSC commissioners.
"I want to have highly qualified people that understand not only the changing technology but the balance sheet," he said. If lawmakers require a college degree for the PSC, Argenziano could be affected. She said she studied to go to veterinary school but didn't graduate.
Whether any increased standards would be applied to Crist's appointees — Benjamin "Steve'' Stevens and David Klement — is uncertain, Haridopolos said.
Fasano said he will oppose any effort to derail the confirmation of Stevens and Klement, which will be considered by the Senate this spring.
"They should be confirmed without delay," he said. "It would be hypocritical for the Legislature to say they don't want these individuals."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com