Firings at PSC viewed as risky

Some fear agency could be hurt at important time

3 commissioners critical

`This has put me at a disadvantage'

April 21, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella and Dan Thanh Dang | Lorraine Mirabella and Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

The firings of senior Maryland Public Service Commission professionals could cripple the agency at a time when it faces critical decisions about consumer electricity rate increases, some PSC commissioners, consumer advocates and legislators said yesterday.

The dismissals Thursday of top staff members with specialized expertise in utility accounting, engineering and rate cases may weaken the commission's ability to judge the merits of utility proposals and ultimately hurt consumers, the critics said.

"They'll be difficult to replace," said former PSC Chairman Glenn Ivey, now Prince George's County state's attorney. "That was an extremely talented group, and hiring in general takes some time. For positions of especially unique expertise like those, you just don't get a big pool of people who have those credentials and experience."

Several commissioners said they were dependent on the staff experts to guide them through a pivotal period as the state shifts to a deregulated market for electric suppliers and the regulated utilities prepare to request some of the first increases on transmission rates in years.

The four other commissioners, all Democrats, were not consulted or notified about the dismissals until Thursday, when Republican PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler informed them of his decision. Three commissioners said they believe their work will suffer as a result.

"This has put me at a disadvantage in my ability to do my job for the state of Maryland," said Commissioner J. Joseph "Max" Curran, the senior member of the commission, appointed in 1999. The fired staff members included Andrew Mosier, chief hearing examiner; Blaine L. Keener, chief engineer; and Randy Allen, director of accounting.

Robert Higginbothan, chief public information officer, and Chrys Wilson, manager of external relations, also were dismissed.

Schisler, who was appointed chairman of the five-member commission by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in May, has refused to discuss the firings, calling them "personnel decisions." He did not return calls yesterday.

"I think it will hurt consumers and benefit industry," state Sen. Brian E. Frosh said. "I think this is going to cost consumers. It's going to hit us right in the pocketbook. You can't just replace these people tomorrow. They've got a knowledge base built step by step over a number of years. There isn't anybody else who can look at the books of Verizon or Pepco or BGE and tell you what accounting moves are being made that the commission ought to take into account when it considers a request for any type of concessions."

Evan Wilner, who has served as a public advocate for utility consumers in Delaware and as a counsel to the Michigan Public Service Commission, said the Maryland move was surprising.

"In most large states, these are civil service positions and not subject to political control," Wilner said. "To remove decades of experience, presumably to be replaced with rookies is just a staggering political decision."

The dismissals were made at a pivotal time for the commission.

This summer electric rate limits expire in the Washington suburbs as the state shifts to a deregulated electric market. The PSC said this month that electric bills will increase an average of 12 percent to 16 percent a year for residential users in the Washington suburbs and Eastern Shore, giving the first inkling of what Marylanders might face as the state moves to a fully deregulated power market.

The PSC is in the midst of hearings to determine how much consumers will be charged in administrative costs for "standard offer service," for customers who don't sign up with a competing electric supply company.

Pepco and sister utilities Conectiv and BGE will appear before the PSC this year to determine rates the utilities will charge to deliver electricity to customers.

"Whoever is appointed ... we hope they have an understanding to protect the consumer," said Gigi Kellett, a MaryPIRG public advocate. "That is our No. 1 priority."

Troubled by the timing of the firings, Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which oversees the PSC, said he would call on Schisler to meet with the committee next month to explain the changes in staff.

"I can understand the changing of the guard, but we're in the throes of standard offer service and price caps coming off the electricity rates and I'm concerned about how citizens will be affected by the changes," said Middleton.

"I would hope the chairman has the people lined up who have the expertise to fill these jobs.

"I was disappointed and surprised that no one was briefed about this whole thing. Maybe these people who were fired weren't pro-business enough. ... If you look at where the governor is coming from, he's got a very progressive, pro-business environment in the state of Maryland."

Frosh said the dismissals appeared to be political.

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