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Panelists focus on mending internal feuds at PSC

Three quarters through the interviews of 28 candidates applying for two vacant posts on the Public Service Commission, the panel seems to be focused on two primary issues: how to restore the integrity of the utility board and how to get commissioners to like each other.

“What do you believe is the biggest challenge confronting the Public Service Commission and what skill set do you believe will help alleviate it,’’ asked Mike Hightower, a Blue Cross/Blue Shield lobbyist, to nearly every one of the candidates.

He frequently added that there is a deep “divisiveness that has cast a cloud over the PSC” and asked how the candidate would change it?

Candidates generally promised to be a consensus builder, listen more, talk less and operate with integrity. Former NFL quarterback Gary Huff and now Florida State University comptroller said “the fingerpointing has got to stop.’’ He added: “You can’t win individually in business and you can’t win individually in sports. You’ve got to work as a team.”

Council Chairman Mike Bennett pointedly asked candidate Mary Bane, the former executive director of the PSC, if her recent conflicts with some sitting commissioners would make it difficult for her to resolve differences. Commissioner Nathan Skop had been critical of Bane’s handling of several issues, publicly challenging her integrity.

Bane responded that in her 30 years at the PSC, “I never had a commissioner question my integrity until these last few months.” She agreed, however, that the infighting has “harmed the agency” and that “perception is reality.”

If appointed, she said, “I would join that body and would maintain a professional demeanor in all the public meetings.’’

Bevin Beaudet, director of the Palm Beach County water utilities, repeatedly asked what the candidates thought of the role of conservation in keeping rates reasonable.

And Sen. Steve Oelrich, an Alachua Republican, repeatedly noted that the state gives utilities the privilege of operatoing as a monopoly and asked candidates if it “would give you any pause if that investor-owned utility had three fixed-wing aircraft, three of which were executive jets.”

James Baumstark, a nuclear engineer and former executive at Progress Energy’s predecessor company, Florida Power, said he recalled having a jet available to them for monthly nuclear regulatory meetings in Washington, D.C. “It was much more convenient in terms of our time,’’ he said. “But I would have to take a look at all the details to see if that kind of investment was justified.”