Crist opts for new blood on public utility board
The Associated Press
KISSIMMEE – Florida Gov. Charlie Crist named two members to the embattled state board that regulates utilities rather than reappoint a pair of incumbents.
David Klement, a 69-year-old former journalist from Bradenton, and Benjamin "Steve" Stevens, a 44-year-old chief financial officer for the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office in Pensacola, were appointed to the Public Service Commission last week.
They replace chairman Matthew Carter and Katrina McMurrian, who were seeking four-year terms. Crist’s predecessor, Gov. Jeb Bush, appointed Carter and McMurrian.
Klement and Stevens will join the board next year, but are subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.
If they are confirmed, that would make all five members of the Public Service Commission appointees of Crist and put maverick Commissioner Nancy Argenziano in line as the next chairman.
"I like having new blood on the commission," Crist said. "Their approach will ensure Florida consumers will receive every protection they deserve."
The commission, which regulates the rates and services of privately owned public utilities, has been under scrutiny for a series of alleged ethical lapses. Critics have accused some commission members and staff of being too cozy with utilities at a time they are proposing rate increases.
Crist has been a vocal opponent of major rate increases being sought by the state’s two largest electric utilities and the appointments drew praise from consumer advocates.
"Many feel the commissioners are in bed with the utilities they regulate," said Brad Ashwell, consumer advocate with the Florida Public Interest Research Group. "We commend Gov. Christ for taking steps to restore the public’s confidence in the PSC."
AARP’s state director, Lori Parham, said she welcomed the appointments and that "it is very important that consumers’ interests be given fair consideration."
Carter said he had no hard feelings toward Crist.
"These things happen," said Carter, a lawyer and minister who has held senior staff positions in other state agencies and with the Legislature. "This is the political season and political things happen during the political season."
McMurrian, who has been with the commission for 15 years working her way up from a low-level analyst, said she’s sure Crist appreciated her services and hoped citizens did, too.
"I’ve done the things that I felt were in the state’s best interest and I’m proud of that," she said.
According to an investigation by The Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times, Carter’s chief adviser called three Florida Power & Light Co. executives 107 times between February and August. Carter has said he knew nothing about the calls and surmised they were either personal or procedural.
The commission is considering FPL’s request for a $1.3 billion rate increase, but a decision isn’t expected until early January, shortly after the new members are due to take office. The panel is expected to decide a $500 million rate increase sought by Progress Energy Florida in December.
Carter’s chief adviser, William Garner, and Roberta Bass, an aide to Commissioner Lisa Edgar, were placed on administrative leave more than three weeks ago pending an investigation of reports that Garner had given FPL the private code for instant messaging from his smartphone and Bass had done so for Edgar’s smartphone.
The instant messaging codes potentially allowed utility officials to communicate directly with commissioners outside public view.
Argenziano’s chief adviser, Larry Harris, resigned at her request after admitting he gave the code for his smartphone to an FPL executive.
The commission’s lobbyist, Ryder Rudd, also resigned after acknowledging he attended a Kentucky Derby party at the home of an FPL executive.