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Crist taps two new utility regulators

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist selected two new utility regulators, including West Palm Beach assistant city administrator Eduardo Balbis, to fill upcoming vacancies on the Public Service Commission.

Crist also tapped Julie I. Brown, a former city attorney for Tampa.

Balbis, 38, is an environmental engineer who has worked for West Palm Beach since 2008. He’s also a member of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning council and serves as chairman of the East Central Regional Water Reclamation Facility Board.

Brown, 35, is associate legal counsel for First American Corporation and also is the sole owner of J.T. Swann Realty Inc.

The new commissioners will fill the seats of current PSC Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano, a former state senator, and Nathan Skop, an engineer, attorney and MBA. Skop and Argenziano, whose terms expire in January, were outspoken critics of the PSC and were not among the candidates selected by the PSC Nominating Council for reappointment.

Crist passed over Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who led the PSC Nominating Council until he resigned to apply for one of the PSC posts, and former PSC Executive Director Mary Bane.

Bane was in charge during a PSC scandal involving staffers sending secret BlackBerry messages to utility employees during rate increase hearings last fall.

The Senate must confirm Crist’s new hires. Last year, they refused to confirm two of his picks – Benjamin “Steve” Stevens, a Panhandle bar owner and accountant and David Klement, a newspaper editorial writer.

UPDATE:Senate sends Crist’s Public Service Commissioners packing

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Read Commissioner David Klement’s response saying “this whole process is a farce” after the jump.

The Florida Senate refused to confirm two of Gov. Charlie Crist’s utility regulators after a heated debate on the Senate floor this afternoon.

The Senate’s action means the two will not fill out the remainder of their Public Service Commission terms, unlike other gubernatorial appointees, and came in the shadow of Crist’s veto of GOP-backed SB 6, the controversial teacher merit pay plan.

Lawmakers will have 30 days to meet and provide another list of three names for each PSC slot and give them to Crist, who makes the final selection.

Opponents of Benjamin “Steve” Stevens, a Panhandle accountant and co-owner of a bar, and David Klement, a former newspaper editorial writer, said the two are not qualifed to serve on the commission that sets billions of dollars in utility rates.

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Guv’s utility regulators could be sent home

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010 by Dara Kam

GOP Senate leaders refused to sign off on two of Gov. Charlie Crist’s appointees to the Public Service Commission and the likelihood of the pair getting confirmation from the Senate required for them to stay on the job is dim.

Committee chairman J.D. Alexander, who is also the Senate’s powerful budget chief and has long been at odds with Crist, abruptly called an end to the meeting this morning with three minutes left on the clock as the panel was in the midst of interrogating Commissioner David Klement.

That drew the wrath of Sen. Mike Fasano, a Crist supporter who has been a vocal critic of the PSC but praised Crist’s latest appointees. An irate Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Alexander was “rude” and “inappropriate” to cut off the meeting before voting on the appointees.

Alexander denied that the failure to confirm Crist’s appointees was political retribution against Crist, who alienated GOP leaders with his veto of SB 6 and increasing speculation that he is going to break away from the Republican Party and run as independent in the U.S. Senate race against primary opponent Marco Rubio.

Alexander’s committee isn’t scheduled to meet again before the session ends on April 30, and the budget chief doesn’t appear interested in keeping Crist’s picks on the panel.

He said that Klement, a former editorial writer, and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens, a Panhandle bar owner and accountant, are unqualified to regulate billions of dollars in utility rate because they lack financial expertise.

The committee unanimously approved nearly four dozen other gubernatorial appointees before taking up the PSC appointments but left Klement and Stevens for last.

“I think we need more time to consider whether these folks are qualified. I don’t think these folks are qualified,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.

Senate signs off on Crist PSC picks – for now

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee gave a preliminary nod to Gov. Charlie Crist’s two latest picks for the Public Service Commission, David Klement and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens.

But, judging from the questions and comments at this morning’s hearings, the new utility regulators who helped kill two proposed rate hikes – including Florida Power & Light Co.’s requested $1.2 billion increase – have a ways to go.

“This is the first step in a very long process,” said chairman Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami.

The committee gave the pair a preliminary nod with an 8-1 vote. Sen. Chris Smith, a black Democrat from Ft. Lauderdale, voted against the appointees because, he said, there are no minorities on the panel.

Sens. Mike Haridopolos and Joe Negron peppered the pair with questions that mirrored the investor-owned utilities dissatisfaction with the regulators that turned down nearly $2 billion in proposed rate increases since they joined the panel this year.

Negron asked Stevens, a Pensacola bar owner and accountant, about the regulator’s statements during a January hearing in which Stevens said he would oppose a rate increase in the future.

Negron, a Republican lawyer from Stuart, wanted to know if Stevens has already made up his mind about future votes.

“I’m not predisposed. I’m open-minded but I do recognize that I’ve got technical guys here, technical guys there and they’re very smart and we have to make a decision,” Stevens said.

Haridopolos was even more pointed. He said that the PSC’s refusal to grant the rate hikes has made it harder and more expensive for the utilities to borrow money.

Haridopolos also grilled both regulators on whether they feel pressure from Crist to vote a certain way after Crist threatened to fire any commissioners who supported the rate hikes.

“We expect you to call balls and strikes. And we expect not to hear about the legislature should do this or that. We expect you to do your job. We move away from the obvious politics that are being played,” Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, said. Lawmakers want commissioners “who don’t care what the governor thinks, don’t care what the legislature thinks, and look at the long term view,” he went on.

“I will take the long-term view,” Stevens assured him.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee must vote on the appointees before a full Senate vote.

Senate committee grills PSC appointees as governor watches

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010 by Dara Kam
Gov. Charlie Crist waits to ask a state Senate panel to approve his appointees to the Public Service Commission. Michael C. Bender/The Palm Beach Post

Gov. Charlie Crist waits to ask a state Senate panel to approve his appointees to the Public Service Commission. Michael C. Bender/The Palm Beach Post

Gov. Charlie Crist cooled his heels for more than an hour as the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee grilled his two Public Service Commission appointees, Steve Stevens and David Klement, but left before the committee took a final vote.

Crist left shortly before 11 a.m. (Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp took his place) to attend a bill signing after being kept on ice by committee chairman Alex Diaz de la Portilla who took up two other bills before getting to the appointment confirmations.

The full Senate must approve the appointments once the committee signs off on them, if they do.

“Both of these men are men of great integrity,” Crist told the committee before the interrogations began. “That’s why I chose to appoint them from the pool that was given to me from you. I believe the Public Service Commission is a great panel. It can do very good work., and I know that these two men are dedicated to doing this. That’s all I wanted to say.”

But that wasn’t enough for Sen. Chris Smith, a black Democrat from Ft. Lauderdale who has raised concern in the past about the lack of diversity on the panel.

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New utility reg chairwoman says big changes not likely

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 by Dara Kam

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.

(more…)

Revamped utility reg panel back at work today

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 by Dara Kam

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.

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Vote on FPL’s proposed $1.2 billion rate hike put off until January

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist got his way with the Public Service Commission today after the panel decided to delay a vote on FPL’s proposed $1.2 billion rate hike until next year.

Regulators voted unanimously to delay a decision on FPL’s rate hike, originally scheduled for Dec. 21, until Jan. 13.

Regulators rejected their staff’s recommendation that they vote on the rate hikes this year as originally planned to comply with state law.

Instead, they agreed to vote on the amount of FPL’s rate hike on Jan. 13 and Progress Energy’s on Jan. 11.

The votes on the breakdown of the rates among different classes of customers will come on Jan. 28 for Progress and Jan. 29 for FPL.

Crist asked the commission to defer the vote on FPL’s rate case and Progress Energy Florida’s proposed $500 million rate increase until after his two new panelists take office on Jan. 1.

One of Crist’s new commissioners, David Klement, got an early start at the PSC in time to participate in today’s crucial vote.

Klement, a former newspaper editorial writer, was sworn in on Friday to fill in for former Commissioner Katrina McMurrian, who quit her job earlier this month after Crist failed to reappoint her to a second term.

Vote on FPL vote kicks off with new commissioner

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009 by Dara Kam

The Public Service Commission began its 9:30 a.m. meeting on time by welcoming Commissioner David Klement, appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist and sworn in last week.

Klement is a former newspaper editorial writer with more than four decades of experience in journalism.

Klement joins the PSC in time for a crucial vote this morning on whether to postpone decisions on Florida Power & Light Co.’s proposed $1.2 billion rate hike and Progress Energy Florida’s requested $500 million rate increase.

“I just promise to do my best and to live up to the things that I said on my oath on Friday to represent the people of Florida and the companies and all the stakeholders in these matters,” Klement said after being welcomed to the PSC by his colleagues.

PSC staff recommend that the panel move ahead with the votes this year as scheduled to comply with state law that lays out a timeline by which regulators must vote.

Crist wants the panel to delay voting on the issues until after the first of the year, when his two new appointees – Klement and Panhandle accountant and bar owner/manager Benjamin “Steve” Stevens – take office.

Klement got an early jump on the post because he’s filling in for former Commissioner Katrina McMurrian, who quit earlier this month after Crist bypassed her for reappointment.

FPL $1.2 billion rate case will wrap up today

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Read the story from The Palm Beach Post on here

Enough already.

Public Service Commission Chairman Matthew Carter pronounced that Florida Power & Light Co.’s prolonged $1.2 billion rate hike case will wrap up tonight. Period.

“We will finish tonight, ladies and gentlemen,” Carter said before adjourning for lunch.

“Everything that needs to be said has pretty much been said. How many more times can you say the same thing?” Carter told The Palm Beach Post shortly after the lunch break began.

Expect some fireworks when the hearing resumes at 2:30.

FPL Group Controller Mike Davis is going to get a grilling on the utility’s proposal to charge customers $3.7 million of the $5 million it estimates it will spend to persuade the PSC to grant its rate hike.

Some of the expenses incurred so far include $1.4 million for consultants, $450,996 for legal services, $214,632 for lodging and $143,232 for meals over a nearly two-year period.

Carter can’t be blamed for wanting the FPL case, sidetracked by what he called “shenanigans” over allegations of conflicts of interest, to come to a halt.

He was absent yesterday because of complications from two back surgeries he’s had this year.

Carter’s got a little more than two months left in his term after Gov. Charlie Crist passed him over for reappointment earlier this month.

The panel will come back at 2:30, a half hour before the newest regulator, David Klement, is sworn in in Sarasota.

Klement, a former newspaper editorial writer, will be in Tallahassee on Tuesday to vote on whether the PSC should decide on FPL’s rate case this year or wait until another new Crist appointee – Pensacola accountant and bar owner/manager Benjamin “Steve” Stevens – joins the PSC on Jan. 1.

FPL last-minute gotcha on $1.2 billion rate hike opponents

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 by Dara Kam

The Public Service Commission and opponents of Florida Power & Light Co.’s proposed $1.2 billion rate hike grilled the utility’s officials about stacking the deck at customer service hearings throughout the day and into the evening yesterday.

FPL Customer Service VP Marlene Santos conceded that the Juno Beach-based utility methodically rounded up dozens of commercial customers – many of whom were recipients of FPL’s charitable gifts – to attend the hearings to tell regulators how great FPL is and that the company deserves the boost.

But just before the hearing ended around 7:30 p.m., FPL lawyers produced documents showing that their opponents employed the same tactics.

Acting Chairwoman Lisa Edgar allowed the last-minute filings over the objections of rate hike opponents.

“We urge you to attend the hearing in your area and speak out against FPL’s requests,” read a June e-mail from the Florida Retail Federation to its members. AARP’s Florida director urged the same of that group’s members in an August article on the group’s Web site.

Today’s hearing kicked off on time at 9:30 but it’s unclear if it will finish up on time late this evening as scheduled.

(more…)

Crist to appoint 3 month stand-in to finish utility regulator’s term

Monday, October 5th, 2009 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist will replace Katrina McMurrian, who abruptly resigned from the Public Service Commission this morning, to fill out the less than three months remaining in her term.

Crist effectively fired McMurrian and PSC Chairman Matthew Carter, both appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2006, last week by refusing to reappoint them to the panel when their terms run out Dec. 31.

Crist’s general counsel Rob Wheeler asked the Public Service Nominating Council for a list of three recommendations to fill McMurrian’s place.

Wheeler asked the council’s lawyer Jay Vail to hurry up with the recommendations “so that there is no membership gap in representation on the Commission.”

There will be a membership gap beginning tomorrow, when the PSC – minus McMurrian, whose resignation was effective immediately – is scheduled to take a vote on a Florida Power & Light Co. proposed $1.5 billion, 300-mile natural gas pipeline.
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Crist tilts utility reg panel to the consumer side

Thursday, October 1st, 2009 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist opted for a Panhandle bar owner and a former newspaper editorial writer over two sitting Public Service Commissioners, putting a pro-consumer stamp on the panel for the first time in decades.

Crist picked David Klement, who spent more than four decades as a newspaperman and now heads the Institute of Public Policy and Leadership at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens, a Panhandle accountant who is co-owner of the Cabana Nightclub in Pensacola, to join the beleaguered five-member agency.

Crist snubbed current PSC Chairman Matthew Carter and Commissioner Katrina McMurrian, both appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, who were up for reappointment and had hoped to remain on the panel now in the midst of two historic rate cases: a $1.3 billion rate hike sought by Florida Power & Light Co. and a $500 million increase proposed by Progress Energy Florida.

Renegade Commissioner Nancy Argenziano, an outspoken critic of the panel and appointed by Crist in 2007, will become chairwoman next year, meaning no more business as usual for the utilities that had strong support from the regulatory panel in the past.

Read the full story here.

What they’re saying about Crist utility reg panel sweep

Thursday, October 1st, 2009 by Dara Kam

Consumer groups applauded Gov. Charlie Crist’s choice of two outsiders to serve on the Public Service Commission shifting the balance away from a utility-friendly panel for the first time in decades.

Crist ousted PSC Chairman Matthew Carter and Commissioner Katrina McMurrian, both appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush and whose terms end Dec. 31, as the panel gets ready to vote on two pending utility rate increases, including a proposed $1.3 billion Florida Power & Light Co. rate hike.

Instead, Crist tapped David Klement, who spent more than three decades as a newspaperman and now serves as director of the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus, and Benjamin “Steve” Stevens, an accountant and chief financial officer for the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office.

The regulatory agency has come under fire for allegations of coziness with the industries it oversees as the FPL and Progress Energy Florida rate hearings are underway. Thus far, one PSC staffers has been fired, two more resigned and two have been placed on administrative leave in the aftermath of reports that some of the aides swapped secret BlackBerry messages with an FPL lawyer.

Here’s what consumer advocates had to say about Crist’s selections.

(more…)

Crist cleans house at utility reg panel

Thursday, October 1st, 2009 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist appointed two new utility regulators to the Public Service Commission, snubbing current Chairman Matthew Carter and Commissioner Katrina McMurrian.

Crist tapped former newspaperman David Klement and Escambia County Sheriff’s Office CFO Benjamin “Steve” Stevens and shaking up the status quo at the regulatory panel mired in controversy in the process of deciding on a proposed $1.3 billion Florida Power & Light Co. rate hike.

The ouster of McMurrian and Carter makes it likely that renegade Commissioner Nancy Argenziano, an outspoken critic of the PSC who accuses regulators of being too close to the utilities they oversee, will take over as chairwoman of the panel next year.

Crist put Argenziano, a former state senator, on the board two years ago to represent consumers and his picks today of two new commissioners who have no ties to utilities mark a decided shift from a PSC that has up until now been viewed as utility-friendly.

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