Leveling the PSC field

Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 11:09 p.m.

Afunny thing happened last week to former Gov. Jeb Bush's appointments on the way to the Florida Public Service Commission: They got dumped.

Charlie Crist decided that, since he's the new governor, he should be the one making appointments. Some 283 nominations Bush made to more than 100 statewide boards, commissions and committees were all wiped clean, and Crist started anew.

For the PSC, Crist said he wanted the two latest appointments to be people who would be more "consumer oriented."

PSC members are akin to judges or referees. But in the case of regulated utilities, the referees haven't exactly been playing on a level field. Rather, it slopes toward the business side, weighted down with campaign contributions, political machines and lobbyists.

Unfortunately, the Public Service Commission's members have, as a whole, become cheerleaders for the companies they regulate. In the past, PSC members have thought nothing of attending lavish parties and dinners financed by the same businesses that come before them seeking rate increases.

In 2004, an ethics complaint was filed against a PSC board member who repeated, word for word and without attribution, the same argument in support of a telephone-rate increase that had been laid out in a memo given to PSC aides by the company making the request.

"The commissioners are supposed to be representing the people, not mimicking all the information put in front of them by the business entities that they're supposed to be regulating," said James H. Monroe, Common Cause Florida's general legal counsel, who filed the complaint.

Crist said while campaigning last year: "I certainly think we need to change the PSC. If I am elected governor, it will change very quickly in the appointment process of who those people are, because the first question in my mind will be: 'Do they understand that their obligation is to the people first and foremost, and to protect them and make sure they aren't taken advantage of?"

His two new appointees clearly reflect that philosophy.

Gone is former state Rep. Ken Littlefield, from Pasco County. In 2003, Littlefield was a prime supporter of a bill that gave Florida the largest increase in telephone rates in history. It was written by telephone-industry lobbyists and shepherded through the Legislature on a promise that higher rates would bring more competition, resulting in lower rates. The rate hikes easily passed the PSC. Crist, then the state's attorney general, fought the increase in court but lost.

Replacing Littlefield will be Philip Nowicki, who has spent the past four years in Georgia, either in the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs or as director of consumer affairs for the Georgia Public Service Commission. Before that, Nowicki worked in Florida, where he was executive director of the Lemon Law Arbitration Program for the Attorney General's Office.

In a press release, Crist noted Nowicki "was on the ground level of establishing Florida's Lemon Law and has also served in leadership roles in state government before heading Georgia's Lemon Law division."

The other Bush PSC appointee sacked by Crist was Isilio Arriaga, a member since October 2005 appointed by Bush to serve another four-year term. He was previously executive director of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

Replacing him will be Jeremy Susac, who has worked for the Florida PSC since 2003. He was a senior attorney and, more recently, chief policy adviser to Commissioner Katerina Tew. "Jeremy brings to the commission hands-on experience in alternative-dispute resolution, such as binding arbitration and mediation," Crist said.

The Senate must confirm the appointments. Senate President Ken Pruitt has said: "These are two qualified applicants that the Florida Senate submitted to the executive branch following our PSC nominating process last fall. We look forward to working with our governor to ensure that his nominees are legally confirmed by the Florida Senate."

Public Counsel Harold McLean said he was very pleased with Crist's substitutions. "It is the most optimistic I have been for the 30 years I have been involved in the regulatory process," he told The Palm Beach Post.

No wonder he's enthusiastic. After three decades, he's apparently going to find out what it's like to play on a level field.

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