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Legislators to public advocate in utility cases: Your job is not secure

TALLAHASSEE — In the midst of two votes over the largest rate cases in state history, the lawyer who represents consumers is on the hot seat.

J.R. Kelly, the head of the Office of Public Counsel, faces confirmation from a newly formed legislative committee that had its first meeting Monday. The Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight convened the same day the PSC was voting on the Progress Energy rate case.

Kelly opposed Progress Energy's request to raise base rates $500 million a year, as well as Florida Power & Light's request to raise them $1.3 billion a year. He said the utility companies not only didn't deserve a rate increase but that because they have overcollected from customers, regulators should order them to reduce rates.

Now Kelly faces more than a routine vote over his reconfirmation. Legislative leaders have decided to open the job to new applicants. The Office of Public Counsel is an arm of the Legislature, and Kelly is appointed by lawmakers.

"It's no indictment on J.R. or on his job," said Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, chairman of the joint committee. "It's just so we can complete the selection process the way it was intended."

Kelly has been representing consumers in electricity, water and telephone issues before the PSC since November 2007. In 2009, he worked on two of the largest cases the commission has handled in 25 years by the state's two largest electric companies.

Jack Shreve, a previous public counsel who held the post for 25 years, said Monday that during all his time as public counsel, he faced confirmation every year but the Legislature never opened the job up for applications.

"I never received a negative vote," he said.

On Monday, state utility regulators agreed with Kelly that Progress Energy should not get a base rate increase.

Kelly said he is proud of the case his office made and "has a strong desire" to remain as public counsel. The committee decided Monday to set rules for the application process in February.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com,

Legislators to public advocate in utility cases: Your job is not secure 01/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2010 11:15pm]
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