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Consumer advocate: strip PSC staffers of their power

The state consumer advocate today proposed that the Public Service Commission take a radical step and remove the ability of staff to formally recommend how the regulatory panel should  rule in pending cases, such as the massive rate cases now before it by Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy.

The recommendation by Public Counsel JR Kelly came Tuesday in a day-long staff workshop on how to improve the integrity of the process given recent developments that show that PSC staff are too cozy with the utilities they regulate. Right now, PSC staff prepare a detailed recommendation on pending utility issues that lays out how the commission could rule. Since the PSC frequently adopts the staff recommendation with little modification, utilities attempt to influence staff and routinely work to develop relationships with them.

"The commissioners are vested with the power, more importantly, the responsibility, to make the final decision,'' Kelly said. "The more we make the process transparent to the public, the more [the public] will understand, the less confusion there will be and the more they will appreciate the job of the public service commissioners have to do."

Today, for example, a staff ruling is scheduled to be released on the Progress Energy $500 million rate case and it is being perceived by Florida Power & Light as an indication of how the staff come down on its $1.3 billion case.

Commissioners Nathan Skop and Commission Chairman Matthew Carter were the only members of the PSC to attend the workshop. Skop said the commission should learn from the 1992 grand jury report and adopt the recommendations that the PSC rejected 17 years ago, particularly those that prohibit the staff from having direct communication with the utilities.

Skop said that he has observed questionable actions at the PSC where commissioners or staff were taking advantage of an exemption in the law that allows conversations with utility offiicials if it relates to procedure, not the merits of a case. "It undermines the process the commission plays,'' he said.

Carter warned, "we don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water,'' and suggested those conversations could take place if they were detailed in writing.

-- Mary Ellen Klas