TALLAHASSEE — In a move designed to reshape the embattled Public Service Commission, Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday named a former newspaper editorial board member and a former finance director for the Escambia County sheriff to the utility regulators' panel, ousting two incumbents.
Crist appointed David Klement, formerly of the Bradenton Herald, and Benjamin "Steve" Stevens, former chief financial officer for the Escambia County Sheriff's Office, to serve on the five-member panel. He rejected two commissioners originally appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush who were seeking new, four-year terms: Chairman Matthew Carter and Katrina McMurrian.
Top on the agenda for the commission are requests by Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light to raise their base rates about 30 percent beginning in January. The commission will rule on the Progress rate request in November and the FPL request in December.
The new appointees will take office Jan. 2, though they must be confirmed by the Senate first. Crist said Thursday that he hasn't considered asking the current commission to postpone the FPL and Progress decisions until his appointees take office, but it's a possibility.
"It certainly would be my preference to let the new blood have a fresh look at these rate cases, and I certainly would prefer that," Crist told the Times/Herald. "I didn't ask what these two appointees would vote on these rates cases because I didn't think that was appropriate. I did get a sense of their heart, their abilities and their compassion and concluded they would be sympathetic to the issues of people in a bad economy."
The PSC has come under fire in the last six weeks as the Times/Herald and consumer watchdogs have revealed a series of potential ethics violations involving commissioners and staffers. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has questioned staffers. Two aides have been placed on administrative leave and another was reassigned for giving private BlackBerry messaging codes to FPL officials. And the PSC lobbyist, a former division director, has resigned under fire.
Carter, 56, has been chairman of the board for the last two years and has overseen its handling of three controversial rate cases. In addition to the current FPL and Progress cases, the panel approved a Tampa Electric rate increase — now being challenged by the Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers.
McMurrian, 36, a former staff aide at the PSC, was asked by a consumer advocate in the FPL rate case to recuse herself from a decision in the case because she dined with an FPL executive while the utility sought the hike. McMurrian refused, saying she is impartial.
With these appointments, Crist will have selected all of the commissioners on the panel, including Lisa Edgar, who was originally appointed by Bush. Her new term began in January.
The changes open the door for former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, who could become PSC chairwoman and control the panel's agenda. Tradition dictates that commissioners serve only one term as chairman and the most veteran on the panel becomes the next one. Argenziano would be next in line because Edgar already has been chairwoman.
Klement, 69, and Stevens, 44, were chosen from a list of six nominees sent to Crist by the Public Service Nominating Council, a 12-member panel that includes six legislators and six private citizens.
Unlike the other four candidates, neither Klement nor Stevens had ever held a job with the PSC. They were the only two candidates Crist interviewed personally.
The commission job pays $130,000 a year.
The decision to appoint Klement and Stevens was lauded by critics, consumer groups and some of the state's largest businesses.
Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who has called for major reforms at the PSC, said he was pleased by Crist's appointments: "He has always put the consumer first, and what we have seen at the PSC recently is they need a change from top to bottom, and this is just a start."
Florida Retail Federation president Rick McAllister called the appointments a good start but said retailers are still concerned about the decisions the current commission may make.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.