New utility reg chairwoman says big changes not likelyby Dara Kam | January 5th, 2010
Public Service Commission Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano began her first day as head of the utility regulatory panel by suggesting that her colleagues conduct themselves like judges.
Argenziano, a former state legislator, took over as chairwoman this morning and Panhandle accountant Benjamin “Steve” Stevens was sworn in as the newest commissioner as the panel prepares to vote on nearly $2 billion in power rate hikes next week.
Argenziano kicked off this morning’s meeting by handing out the code of judicial conduct to the other four members of the PSC in an effort to place more distance between the commissioners and their staff and the utilities they oversee.
She wants all communications placed in writing and entered into the public record in cases pending before the PSC.
The quasi-judicial panel is considering imposing changes to its own ethical standards while awaiting possible legislative changes to how the commission operates regarding communications between the utilities and the PSC.
But Argenziano, a Republican from Dunedin appointed to the PSC by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007, wants broader changes in the way potential commissioners are selected by a committee comprised largely of legislators. Those suggestions are then given to the governor, who makes the final decision.
Argenziano objects to the legislature’s influence on the selections because, she says, House and Senate leaders are dependent on campaign contributions from the utilities.
She wants the panel to become part of the court system and have commissioners appointed by either the Cabinet or the attorney general or a smaller group that would be more accountable to consumers, she said.
But lawmakers are unlikely to cede their power over the PSC, Argenziano admitted.
Stevens, a co-owner and manager of a bar in Pensacola and a former head of the state association of accountants, was accompanied by his wife, three children and other family members.
He vowed to strike a balance between the needs of rate payers and utilities and said he was working hard to catch up on the hundreds of hours of testimony and stacks of documents related to the rate cases.
“I am up to the challenge. I have watched a lot of DVDs. Read a lot of large three binders,” said Stevens, who worked as the chief financial officer at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office for eight years, thanking Crist for the appointment. “This is a very humbling experience. I’m honored by it. I do not take it lightly.”
Stevens and his colleagues will vote next week on Florida Power & Light Co.’s proposed $1.2 billion-a-year rate hike, a case that has operated under a cloud of allegations of impropriety since its advent in August.
On the opening day of FPL’s proposed $1.2 billion-a-year rate increase hearing, Commissioner Nathan Skop revealed that the PSC’s lobbyist, Ryder Rudd, had attended a Kentucky Derby party at the Palm Beach Gardens home of FPL Vice President Ed Tancer. Rudd later quit.
Since then, the agency has struggled through investigations into BlackBerry messages exchanged between the PSC and an FPL attorney, a myriad of ethics complaints and allegations of interference from political leaders, including Gov. Charlie Crist, who threatened to not reappoint any commissioners who voted in favor of the rate hike.
The FPL hearing has been delayed several times as FPL officers were repeatedly ordered back to Tallahassee for more questioning.
In the meantime, Crist passed over two sitting commissioners – Katrina McMurrian and Chairman Matthew Carter – for reappointment and instead tapped two new commissioners: Stevens and former newspaper editorial writer David Klement – with no apparent previous ties to the agency or utilities. McMurrian quit with two months left in her term.
Carter last year cautioned lawmakers not to overreact to the “shenanigans” that erupted during the FPL rate case and a proposed $500 million Progress Energy Florida rate increase.
But Argenziano disagreed.
“I don’t think you can overreact,” she said.