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Bill aims to bring sunshine into PSC hearings

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Power & Light's attempt to stack its public hearings this summer with favorable testimony has so outraged a West Palm Beach state representative that he's filed a bill to force the tactic into the sunshine.

Rep. Mark Pafford, a freshman Democrat, wants anyone testifying before the Public Service Commission to disclose any financial relationship with a utility company, including any charitable contribution and whether their boards include any utility employee.

FPL was chastised by two PSC commissioners this week when, during hearings on FPL's request to raise electric rates 30 percent, the company acknowledged that it used employees to line up customers to speak favorably about FPL at public hearings before state regulators.

Commissioners Nathan Skop and Nancy Argenziano said the company appeared to be putting more energy into orchestrating positive feedback than it did into addressing complaints.

The PSC wrapped up hearings on FPL's rate request late Friday, after the case went into overtime and over budget. The commission may accept, modify or reject FPL's request. If the company doesn't like the decision, it can appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

Pafford, who works for The Lord's Place, a nonprofit homeless organization in West Palm Beach, said he got the idea for the legislation when he attended a hearing on FPL's quality of service in June. He said FPL employees stood behind him with a sheet of paper and rattled off "who would be speaking and about what, before they made it to the microphone."

"It was like watching a Monday Night Football game," he said. "They had a play-by-play."

Pafford, a member of the Public Service Nominating Commission, said he was angered that some of the people offering positive testimony were members of local nonprofits that had received contributions from FPL. No one disclosed that link, he said.

"I thought they were there to say 'Don't raise our rates' and all of a sudden, they were all saying 'FPL is great,' " Pafford said. "They even had someone who talked about how wonderful it was to work a full day and come home and have the lights on and that was reason enough to grant them the full rate increase. I was flabbergasted."

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he watched the same thing happen to a lesser degree at Progress Energy hearings in west central Florida. Progress is seeking a rate increase of $500 million a year.

"They had nonprofit groups come up and say, 'Progress Energy is a good community leader,' " Fasano said. "I don't disagree, but that has nothing to do with the rate increases."

Pafford said his organization does not receive any money from FPL but other local groups do. "Getting a $1,000 or $5,000 check is a lot of money for these groups," he said. "They probably feel obligated to show up."

FPL told commissioners that it organized the positive feedback after learning that opponents to the rate case — AARP and the Florida Retail Federation — had sent out letters and press releases urging their members to show up and speak against it.

But Pafford scoffed at that contention Friday. "They have millions and millions of dollars and they have potentially a bully pulpit when they give thousands of dollars to nonprofits," he said. "To point the finger at an organization of 300,000 elders in the state is obnoxious."

Meanwhile on Friday, David Klement, the former editorial page editor of the Bradenton Herald, was sworn in as a PSC member, filling the three-month unexpired term of Katrina McMurrian, who resigned Oct. 5. He will continue into a four-year term that begins Jan. 2.

McMurrian resigned when Gov. Charlie Crist failed to reappoint her and Commission Chairman Matthew Carter and instead picked Klement and Benjamin "Steve'' Stevens, the former finance director for the Escambia County sheriff.

Klement, 69, will be on the commission Tuesday when it is expected to vote on issues including whether to accept the governor's request to delay a vote on the FPL and Progress rate cases, whether to allow the companies to impose temporary rate increases until the final votes on the issues, and whether to accept a PSC staff recommendation that electric companies not be required to increase their energy conservation requirements.

Klement told the Times/Herald he has been reading the legal briefs, preparing questions and talking with PSC staff. "I intend to be well informed on Tuesday morning," he said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]

Bill aims to bring sunshine into PSC hearings 10/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 9:42am]
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