PSC chief fires 5 top members of agency staff

Rate expert, audit head, chief engineer are let go

`Wealth of knowledge' lost

Ehrlich appointee puts stamp on regulatory panel

April 20, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella and Dan Thanh Dang | Lorraine Mirabella and Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

The head of the commission that oversees power deregulation in Maryland has abruptly fired five top staff members as the Ehrlich administration continues to put its imprint on a key regulatory agency after decades of Democratic control.

The firings come at a pivotal time, with the Maryland Public Service Commission poised to set rates charged by electric utilities to deliver power to customers, and raised concerns from some commission members about the loss of experts in utility accounting, engineering, public education and rate-setting.

PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler, who was appointed chairman of the five-member commission by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in May, confirmed yesterday that the staff firings occurred Thursday.

The dismissed employees were Andrew Mosier, chief hearing examiner; Blaine L. Keener, chief engineer; Randy Allen, director of accounting; Chrys Wilson, the PSC's spokeswoman; and Robert Higginbothan, a public information officer.

Schisler refused to comment on the reason for the dismissals or the impact of the employees' departures on the PSC, which also regulates aspects of the telecommunications industry, water and sewage, gas, taxi rates and bay pilot fees.

"I am not going to comment on personnel decisions," Schisler said yesterday.

A spokesman for Ehrlich also declined to comment, but said the commissioners have autonomy to make decisions at the departmental level.

The chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, which oversees Maryland public utility issues, said yesterday that he had not known about the terminations and was concerned about the loss of institutional knowledge at an agency that constantly struggles to keep up with a growing number of complicated issues.

"I don't know what the circumstances of the terminations are, but it appears they've lost a wealth of knowledge with those dismissals," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat. "We rely tremendously on the Public Service Commission's advice. A lot of the things that are critical to our day-to-day lives, things you don't think about on a daily basis, the commission has oversight over those issues. They play a critical role. You want that institutional knowledge."

But Davis said he has confidence in Schisler and the commission to perform "in the best interest of the citizens of the state."

Three PSC commissioners said yesterday that Schisler did not consult them about the firings. They were notified by the chairman Thursday as the employees were being placed on two weeks' administrative leave.

"I'm appalled at how they were treated," said Commissioner Gail C. McDonald, who was appointed to the commission in 2001 by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "I think their loss is a blow to the quality of our work, and I'm concerned."

Four of the five PSC staff members were notified of their termination Thursday and the fifth on Friday. They were told to collect their belongings and were escorted out of the state-owned William Donald Schaefer Tower downtown by a plainclothes police officer, Keener said.

They were not permitted to make any phone calls, and one employee had a phone removed from her hand. Photos of the employees were placed behind a security desk at the PSC offices, and guards were instructed not to permit the employees back into the offices.

Keener, who headed the nine-person engineering division that inspects utility plants and records, said he was escorted into a vacant office and handed a termination letter. While he packed up his belongings, an armed officer with a walkie-talkie waited in the hallway.

"I don't think anyone was aware. My secretary was crying outside the door," said Keener, a nine-year employee. "I gave her a hug before I left."

Keener said he plans to appeal the termination April 29, his last day on the payroll.

McDonald and Commissioner J. Joseph "Max" Curran III said they were concerned about the loss of the staff members' expertise at a time when the PSC faces important and complex cases that will determine rates for electricity transmission by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co. The PSC will continue to set transmission rates, though the market would determine the rates for the actual electricity once deregulation caps expire.

As the first Republican governor in Maryland in more than three decades, Ehrlich last year appointed Schisler, a former Republican minority whip in the House of Delegates, to be chairman of the PSC, replacing Democrat Catherine I. Riley.

The governor then raised eyebrows when he ousted longtime People's Counsel Michael J. Travieso, another Democrat, whose office represents consumer interests.

Curran, the PSC's senior commissioner, said Schisler gave him no reason for the employees' dismissal.

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