The Public Service Commission has a chance to start fresh this year. Two of the five commissioners are new. A new general counsel, former Pinellas legislator Curt Kiser, brings a reputation of integrity to the job. Staff is scheduled on Wednesday to make recommendations on changing the agency's culture. And a key lawmaker, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has proposed reforms.
But the PSC shouldn't wait for the Legislature to make a clean break from its tainted past. The quasi-judicial agency should move on its own to start acting more like a court by requiring all communications between utilities and the PSC be documented. That was first recommended by a statewide grand jury 17 years ago, and it would go a long way toward restoring the public's faith in the PSC.
The law now prohibits commissioners from communicating with utilities outside public hearings whenever the companies have a rate request before the commission. But the ban on ex parte communication does not extend to staff. Nor does it encompass another significant function of the commission, rulemaking, that can have just as much impact on consumers and their wallets as a rate case decision.
Consider, for example, the PSC's debate last year over conservation standards. Consumers are likely to pick up costs associated with utilities meeting the modest new targets. So why should the utilities be able to lobby commissioners out of public view on such matters?
A 1992 statewide grand jury proposed banning all ex parte communications between the utilities and the PSC and its staff during ratemaking and rulemaking after another spate of scandals surrounding the agency. The jury wanted all communication between parties to be documented, whether it dealt with rulemaking or rate setting. Those who violated the rules — regulators, utilities or the public counsel — would face punishment.
The grand jury's recommendations were largely unheeded until recent months, when the PSC embarked on a series of workshops to consider changes. They can't come too soon. Consider, for example, how the higher standard of judicial proceedings would have removed ambiguity from the commission's recent embarrassments:
• It would have been clear that former PSC lobbyist Ryder Rudd — the equivalent to a judicial aide — had no business attending a Kentucky Derby party in May at the home of a Florida Power & Light executive just two months after the utility announced it would seek a rate increase.
• The decision by some PSC staff members to provide FP&L's lobbyist their PINs, or instant messaging codes for their Blackberry devices, would clearly violate procedure.
• Former Commissioner Katrina McMurrian would have been expected to recognize that dining with an FP&L executive at an industry conference while the company's rate request was pending was inappropriate.
The grand jury wrote in 1992, "Individuals charged with responsibilities similar to those of a judge must conduct themselves in a manner that exhibits fairness. … Judges are required to avoid even the appearance of impropriety." Such sensibility is exactly what has been missing at the PSC for decades. With two new PSC members, the opportunity is there for a new start. The 1992 grand jury's advice remains sound.