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Rejection of Argenziano & Skop Prompts Calls for PSC Reform

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-912199.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Gov. Charlie Crist is considering candidates for appointment to the Public Service Commission. But the short list he got from a nominating board dominated by lawmakers doesn't contain the names of two sitting commissioners Crist had proposed for their first terms. As Margie Menzel reports, that's bringing calls for a constitutional amendment - perhaps with the departing commissioners in key roles.

Florida columnists and editorial boards are excoriating the Legislature and the PSC Nominating Council - lawmakers for refusing to confirm Crist appointees Steve Stevens and David Klement in April...and the council for axing PSC Chair Nancy Argenziano and Commissioner Nathan Skop from consideration for a second term on June 30. All four had voted against record rate increases requested by two utilities, $1.3 billion by Florida Power and Light and $500,000 by Progress Energy.

"The PSC really went to just a totally dysfunctional group of people," said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.

Bennett now chairs the PSC Nominating Council, following term-limited Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who did make the short list sent to Crist. Bennett notes that he earlier chaired the council when Argenziano and Skop were tapped for their current terms, but then...

"Commissioners were going to the press, they were venting their anger in the press," Bennett said. "It's very, very difficult for you and I to do business if I call you ugly names if I call you ugly names in the morning and question your ethics, and then that afternoon want to work with you...You can't do business that way."

Skop calls Bennett's view disingenuous.

"They can blame me and Commissioner Argenziano for infighting, but if I've done anything at all, it's been outspoken against the unethical conduct," Skop said.

Last year the PSC was wracked with disclosures that commissioners had allowed their staff to exchange hundreds of phone calls and text and PIN messages with utility company employees.

"There's no dissension at the PSC. That's a line of bull crap," said Argenziano, a former Republican state senator, "and I'd love for them to come out and - what are they going to have, examples of us discussing in internal affairs what used to be discussed behind closed doors? Do they really want me to go there?"

Bennett pointed to ethics charges against Argenziano and Commissioner Lisa Edgar - both subsequently dismissed - as examples of the infighting. That's why, he said, the number-one question the council asked candidates was, "How would you overcome the negative atmosphere?" Bennett also said he was never contacted by a utility company during the selection process.

"I think it was more of a reaction to the governor," said Bennett. "I think some people were more upset about the governor than anything else, and so I didn't see it as the power company. I'm sure they didn't make any friends when they voted against it, but I've got to tell you, from the information I read, I probably would have voted against the power companies myself had I been on that commission."

The council's selections outraged Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a long-term PSC critic whose bill to make the panel's members elected never got heard in committee last session. He estimates that utility companies spent a million dollars on lobbyists to kill the confirmations of Stevens and Klement...

"...and probably spent just as much to stop the reconfirmations, or the reappointments," said Fasano.

Barney Bishop heads the state's premier business lobby, Associated Industries of Florida, and acknowledges its long-contentious relations with Argenziano, who as a lawmaker famously sent a sack of manure to an AIF lobbyist. As to her criticism of the Legislature and nominating council, said Bishop...

"This is exactly the politicization of the PSC that we staked a position out against last year when Gov. Crist and Sen. Fasano were trying to dictate a position to the PSC what the outcome of the rate case that we're in an intervener in right now. That is no more fair to do that than it is to allege that utilities may have spent $2 million to get rid of these folks."

Fasano says he'll re-file his PSC reform bill as early as possible for next session.

"Every consumer better hide their pocketbook," he said, "because if the utility companies have this much power, you can bet your last dollar, sadly, that they'll going to go before the next new commissioners come January of next year and ask for another rate increase, and sadly, they'll probably be granted it."

But Bishop said he's skeptical of charges of coziness between utility lobbyists and PSC personnel.

"I think that that is the perception. I'm not sure that that's really true," he said. "But I that some members of the PSC have tried to politicize this entire process.

Argenziano and Skop both say they've been contacted by consumer groups who want to push for a constitutional amendment to change the PSC, and both say they may play a role.