Revamped utility reg panel back at work todayby Dara Kam | January 5th, 2010
A consumer-friendly former legislator with a reputation for bucking the system takes over as head of the panel that sets billions of dollars in utility rates, including a pending $1.2 billion Florida Power & Light Co. rate hike request, today.
Public Service Commissioner Nancy Argenziano will become chairwoman of the agency that will now bear the brand of Gov. Charlie Crist who selected four of the five members of the panel and reappointed one previously picked by his predecessor Jeb Bush.
Also new to the regulatory panel: Benjamin “Steve” Stevens, a Panhandle accountant and co-owner of a bar catering to the college crowd.
Stevens, Crist’s latest appointment, joins the PSC just a week before the regulators are set to make two important votes: the FPL rate increase and a $500 million Progress Energy Florida rate hike request.
Commissioner David Klement, a retired newspaperman who spent more than three decades as an editorial writer, joined the panel late in October.
Argenziano, a former legislator with a reputation as a feisty maverick unafraid of defying the status quo, has vowed to clean up the embattled agency blackened by allegations of improper communications and relationships between agency staff and representatives of the utilities they oversee.
Argenziano asked for a grand jury investigation into possible wrongdoing regarding BlackBerry messages exchanged between PSC staff and an FPL attorney and other allegations that she said suggested too cozy a relationship between the PSC and the utilities. Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs turned down her request, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to convene a grand jury.
FPL, the state’s largest utility with about 4.5 million customers, argued that it needs the rate increase to keep costs lower in the future and that customers’ bills will go down even if it is granted because of dropping fuel prices.
But PSC staff recently recommended significantly lower rate hikes than the power companies are hoping for.
For FPL, staff recommended a $357 million increase – less than a third of what the Jupiter-based utility sought. And staff slashed Progress Energy’s request by more than 90 percent to $48 million.
The cloud over the agency began in August on the opening day of FPL’s proposed $1.2 billion-a-year rate increase when 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 Crist, throughout the FPL hearings. The PSC is slated to vote on the rate request in January.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the PSC’s own inspector general and Meggs found no evidence that the BlackBerry messages broke any laws.
But, with Argenziano at the helm, changes are expected in the way messages and information are exchanged between commissioners or staff and the utilities.
One suggestion is that the quasi-judicial agency behave more like real judges and require that all communications be in writing and included in case files as part of the public record.