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A Times Editorial

A fresh start for utility regulator

Gov. Charlie Crist took a step toward restoring confidence in the Public Service Commission on Thursday when he declined to reappoint a pair of commissioners who appeared to be too close to utilities. He also opened the door for a more proconsumer bent on the commission, if former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano is elected the new PSC chair in January.

But Crist's appointments won't mean much unless the commission delays a decision on a pending rate request by Florida Power & Light — the South Florida utility at the heart of the controversy — and law enforcement officials continue their investigations of the agency to fully reveal what has happened there. Clearly, the PSC should postpone its initial December vote on FPL's rate request until at least January.

Crist has appointed two outsiders, former Bradenton Herald editorial page editor David Klement, 69, and former Escambia sheriff's chief financial officer Steve Stevens, 44, to replace Katrina McMurrian and Matthew Carter, two Jeb Bush appointees whose four-year terms end Jan. 1.

Both Carter, the commission chairman, and McMurrian have come under scrutiny because of their or their staff's communications with FPL officials in the months since the utility filed a request for a 30 percent base rate increase. McMurrian had dinner in March with an FPL executive while at an out-of-state conference. She denies any wrongdoing, saying she never discussed the company's rate request and that she paid for her meal. Then, just this week, Carter came under scrutiny when newly released public records showed his aide, William Garner, had made more than 100 cell phone calls to FPL officials in the past six months. The call volume appears grossly out of line with that of other staffers, but Carter has said he had no idea of the extent of the contact.

That discovery comes on top of weeks of disturbing disclosures of contacts between FPL and PSC staff that prompted the state attorney to make inquiries and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to open an investigation.

There is little public confidence that the current commission will balance FPL's interests with those of consumers. Klement and Stevens will face a steep learning curve to prepare for any vote on the utility's rate request. Rate filings are dense documents, and the commission has already heard weeks of testimony from FPL and Progress Energy, which is similarly seeking about a 30 percent base rate increase.

But both appointees appear qualified for the task. Klement last directed the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at the University of South Florida, and Stevens, before joining the Sheriff's Office, served as the interim budget director for the Escambia County Commission.

The utilities will likely fight any delays, but the commission will only further sully its reputation with consumers if it rushes forward. Crist has provided the PSC a chance to start fresh even as the investigations into past behavior continue, and commissioners should seize it.

A fresh start for utility regulator 10/01/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 1, 2009 5:57pm]
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