State Politics

Crist: PSC nominating council action ‘enormously disappointing’

TAMPA — Gov. Charlie Crist says it is “enormously disappointing” that a panel led by Bradenton state Sen. Mike Bennett refused to interview the governor’s choices for reappointment to the state Public Service Commission.

The Public Service Commission Nominating Council, chaired by Bennett, R-Bradenton, refused to interview PSC Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano or Commissioner Nathan Skop, who were among those who voted to reject the largest electric rate increases ever sought in Florida.

The council voted Wednesday to interview 18 candidates for two positions on the state utility board, but Crist appointees Argenziano and Skop were not among them.

“It’s ridiculous, and enormously disappointing,” Crist said Thursday following a speech at the Florida Association of Counties’ annual conference at the Tampa Marriott Waterside.

The governor termed the pair “very hard-working, pro-consumer members” of the PSC.

Asked if the council may have rejected the two because of their votes against utility company rate hikes, Crist responded, “It wouldn’t surprise me, unfortunately.”

Bennett defended the nominating council.

He told the Herald that its members wanted to “start all over again” in order to end dissension over the PSC.

“These people were continuously backbiting and publicly criticizing each other,” Bennett said.

He stressed that he had “no problem” with their votes against utility rate hike proposals.

“I was against the rate hike,” Bennett said. “They rejected themselves, primarily because of attitude and dissension they caused among other commissioners.”

As for the next move, the nominating council sent the governor the names of eight people to choose from for the first two open slots on the PSC, Bennett said.

The state needs a forward-thinking energy policy with the emphasis on renewable forms, and a PSC board that can work together to get it done, Bennett said.

“We want pro-consumer people who will work for a solution, not just make other people look bad,” Bennett said.

Skop said he had worked closely with and had “the utmost respect for Sen. Bennett,” but noted, “That being said, the conduct of the nominating council was repugnant to your readers, his constituents and the people of the State of Florida.”

Unethical conduct, not infighting among commissioners, is the real problem at the Florida Public Service Commission, he added.

In April, the Florida Senate ousted two of Crist’s more recent appointees, Benjamin “Steve” Stevens and David Klement, a former Bradenton Herald editorial page editor, by refusing to confirm them.

Klement on Thursday predicted utility companies would be back for rate hikes, “now that they have four of the five commissioners that appear to be fairly handpicked by legislators and Nominating Council members.”

“It is a real loss for the PSC, and the people of Florida, because both commissioners, Skop and Argenziano, are the most diligent, dedicated, hard-working people I’ve ever met, in trying to come up with the best decision,” Klement said.

“And to use ‘internal dissension’ as a reason not to reappoint them is disingenuous, in my opinion, because the problems relevant to internal dissension are much deeper than those two commissioners,” he said.

Bennett said his leadership of a political committee called the “Committee Supporting Utilities and Competitive Commerce” did not constitute a conflict of interest on his part when choosing nominees for the regulatory body that oversees utility companies.

“No, not at all,” he said. “They’re trying to make it look like everybody on there is in the pocket of the utilities and Big Business, and that simply is not the case.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031. The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.