TALLAHASSEE — A 1992 grand jury report that proposed ways to improve the integrity of the Public Service Commission was dusted off and embraced as a good idea Tuesday by consumer advocates and lawyers for electric customers, nearly two decades after state regulators rejected most of the ideas.
The state's consumer advocate, lawyers for the AARP and the state's largest industrial power users all said that it is time to make sure communication between the utility regulators and the utility companies is done in the open.
"The more we make the process transparent to the public, the more (the public) will understand, the less confusion there will be," said J.R. Kelly, head of the Office of Public Counsel, who represents the public in rate cases.
Two PSC commissioners who attended the staff workshop, Nathan Skop and Matthew Carter, agreed that it is time to require all staff communications be made public but disagreed over how far to go.
Skop said the grand jury findings "go a long way to addressing the systemic problems that tend to appear at the commission." Carter said that instead of banning all behind-the-scenes conversations between utilities and staff members, the conversations should be recorded in writing.
The recommendations surfaced in the first in a series of workshops the commission has scheduled to recommend rule changes and legislation amid complaints that the PSC and its staff have become too cozy with the utilities it regulates.
The issue came to a head this fall as the PSC began considering major rate increase requests sought by the state's largest utilities, Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Florida.
Commission staffers were disciplined after the Times/Herald reported that they had given their private Blackberry PINs — personal identification numbers that allow direct messaging between Blackberry users — and those of some commissioners, to utility lobbyists.
The Leon County state attorney and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated. Each concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing. The FDLE released its final report Tuesday, confirming that conclusion but revealing that its investigation began Aug. 4 in response to a complaint by Commissioner Nathan Skop.
Skop "expressed concerns'' that the exchange of PINs "created the appearance of impropriety'' and could potentially be in violation of the state's public records and Sunshine laws, the report said.
The commission staff will conduct another hearing in December and have a final recommendation for rule changes and proposed legislation in January.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.