A legislative committee met Thursday to vet candidates for a key watchdog position in an office that represents Florida utility customers before regulators who consider rate hike requests and other matters.
But by the afternoon meeting, just one applicant remained in the running to lead the Office of Public Counsel — a former lobbyist for the Florida Home Builders Association who previously lobbied for a nonprofit with ties to the utility industry.
In a meeting lasting about 40 minutes, the Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight asked Tallahassee lawyer Richard Gentry how he would approach the job, particularly as several major electricity rate cases are scheduled to be heard this spring.
“I would keep a constant eye toward protecting those who might be the least able to afford a rate increase,” Gentry said.
The pay range listed in a legislative posting for the job is $38,220-$82,608.
The position was vacated recently for the first time in 13 years after legislators imposed a term limit on the position, pushing out longtime customer advocate J.R. Kelly. While Kelly would have been eligible to reapply for the position, he declined.
“I believe the Legislature has made clear its preference that no person should serve in the position longer than the 12-year limit adopted in the statute,” he said in a resignation letter to the president of the state Senate and speaker of the Florida House.
Despite the position’s rare opening, just four candidates applied, all of whom were men. As of the beginning of the week, two had dropped out after accepting other positions, and a third — Florida House staff lawyer Michael Barry — pulled his application from the running after learning he had to maintain an office in Leon County, said Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, who chaired the committee.
Gentry said he was drawn to the position as an opportunity to give back to Florida and represent millions of Floridians. If selected for the position, he said he planned to go over utility filings with a “fine-tooth comb” to ensure all requests for rate increases are prudent.
“I understand the gravity of the issues within the purview of the (Office of Public Counsel),” he said. “They’re among the most fundamental quality of life issues in Florida that customers face.”
The committee will meet again Feb. 9 to discuss Gentry’s application and vote.