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Chiles wins PSC selection fight

In a unanimous opinion Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the governor's latest appointee to the Public Service Commission.

Gov. Lawton Chiles acted legally when he picked Diane Kiesling to the five-member regulatory panel in November, the court ruled.

The decision is expected to conclude a contentious power struggle between the governor's office and the PSC Nominating Council, which had appealed the selection of Kiesling, a former state administrative hearing officer from Monticello.

"This ruling is an important step toward making the PSC Nominating Council _ and ultimately the Commission itself _ more accountable to the people of Florida," Chiles said in a prepared statement. "I'm pleased that the court has recognized the statutory responsibility of the governor to appoint the nominee who will best serve the people's interests."

Chiles threatened to sue the council in September for picking only four nominees for two PSC openings instead of at least three names for each vacancy as state law requires. The nominating council then sent him seven names divided into different slates, from which he chose Kiesling.

The council was peeved that Chiles had picked Kiesling for a seat from a slate of names it had submitted for another vacancy.

"By submitting separate lists the council tried to restrict the governor's appointing authority," the justices said.

State statutes, the high court said, don't authorize or require the nominating council to give the governor separate lists for each vacancy.

"The nominating council cannot impose requirements of its own creation to limit the governor's appointment authority," the justices wrote. "The nominating council had no authority under the circumstances of this case to appoint Bruce, and the governor's ap pointment of Kiesling is valid."

Kiesling was overjoyed with the outcome.

"I think this will finally put to rest the last cloud in what has been a tough couple of years for the Public Service Commission," she said.

PSC members serve four-year terms and set rates for and regulate telephone, electric and many water and sewer utilities. Commissioners are paid $92,727 a year.

When Chiles appointed Kiesling, the council said the governor had acted illegally. It then appointed its own nominee _ former Pensacola banker Ronald Bruce.

Court justices disagreed with the council.

"As required, (the governor) appointed "one of the applicants nominated by the council,'

" the justices concluded. "It is the nominating council that usurped its authority by trying to restrict the governor's statutory power to appoint."

The nominating council, chaired by Miami warehouse executive Andy Blank, has been criticized for trying to manipulate the nominating process to favor cronies.

"I think the council was obligated to challenge the position the governor took," Blank said. "This was never an issue of qualifications between different commission nominees. This was a process issue."

Unless challenged, the Supreme Court decision becomes law in 14 days.

Blank said he doesn't plan to seek a rehearing.

Kiesling's appointment must still be confirmed by the Senate before the end of this legislative session.

As a result of the dispute, several bills to reform the nominating process are pending before the Legislature.

One would abolish the nominating council and give complete appointment power to the governor. Another would require the nominating council to send the governor one list of at least three nominees for each vacancy and require council members to disclose any potential conflicts.

A third, supported by the governor, would restructure the way the nominating council is appointed and give the governor more power to remove or suspend commissioners or council members.

Said Chiles: "This ruling strengthens our resolve to prevail upon the Legislature to reform the nominating process."