TAMPA — In quick fashion Wednesday, the Legislature-dominated Public Service Commission Nominating Council ousted Gov. Charlie Crist's two appointees to the state utility board, landing the final blow to the panel that voted against the two largest rate increases in state history.
Ten members of the council voted to interview 18 candidates for the two positions on the state utility board in August, and refused to interview PSC chairwoman Nancy Argenziano or commissioner Nathan Skop.
Argenziano and Skop had sought reappointment for the four-year term but were widely opposed by the powerful utility industry, particularly Florida Power & Light, who saw them as hostile regulators. Their terms expire January 2011 for the $130,000-a-year job.
The council had no debate about the 55 candidates who applied for the job, just some discussion about a future energy policy. This removes all but one of the commissioners who voted to reject the largest rate increases sought by FPL and Progress Energy. It had been a goal of the companies to remove the other two Crist appointees, Benjamin "Steve'' Stevens and David Klement and the Florida Senate agreed and refused to confirm them.
Argenziano said in a statement that the decision came as no surprise, and blamed the Legislature and the business lobbying group, Associated Industries of Florida, which has been a close ally of FPL on legislative issues.
"I take some pride in having leveled the playing field, consistent with the law, so that the ratepayer, with no protection other than the integrity of five commissioners, could compete with the monopolies," she said. "That this should have cost me my job, given the decrepitude of the Legislature, was a foregone conclusion."
The nominating council is controlled by the Florida Legislature, with six legislators and a chairman, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Sarasota, whose pro-industry leanings are evident in the political committee Bennett chairs, named "Committee Supporting Utilities and Competitive Commerce." The nominating council also includes six lay people, some of whom work with the utility industry in their jobs.
FPL CEO Armando Olivera told the Miami Herald editorial board on Wednesday that they would not comment on FPL's role in the ousting of Argenziano and Skop, but did not deny a statement from an FPL manager that the company's lobbyists Eric Silagy and Paul Hamilton had either direct or indirect contact with members of the nominating council in their attempt to persuade them to remove the sitting commissioners.
"As a matter of policy, we don't talk about the political process," Olivera said. "There it's not in anybody's interest for us to weigh in the political process, nor have we commented on PSC appointments. We're a regulated company, a lot better off not (commenting) on regulators and whether we like a regulator or don't like a regulator."
Bennett said the council rejected Argenziano and Skop because they didn't like the internal politics at the commission, even though there was no public debate and no discussion about their performance.
"It appeared that they were more than willing to take the disagreement to the public," he said. "I just believe that you don't need to do that. You can disagree without being disagreeable. I don't feel like we ousted anybody. We were looking for a Public Service Commission that will be more congenial, more cooperative."
The panel has recommended eight names to Crist to replace Klement and Stevens. He has until July 15 to pick his choices or the nominating council will do it for him.
Argenziano received a vote from Sen. Arthenia Joyner and Skop received a vote from Sen. Steve Oelrich and Gerri McPherson.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, a harsh critic of the utility industry, said the move by the council was a blow to consumers in Florida.
"It is evident that unless you support the big utility companies you will never have a chance to continue serving on the Florida Public Service Commission," Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said in a statement. "...They were not afraid to ask tough questions and not walk in lockstep with utilities."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com