Power failure

April 25, 2004

THE MARYLAND PUBLIC Service Commission is not a typical state agency. It regulates, among other things, electric and gas utilities, the telephone companies, and even city taxis. Such work is specialized and demanding. It requires experienced employees who can understand the intricacies of multibillion-dollar businesses. The commission itself has long been run as a quasi-judicial body, weighing evidence, hearing advocates and rendering decisions.

That's why it was so shocking that PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler would dismiss a handful of top managers without bothering to offer a justification to his fellow commissioners. These employees were shown the door by armed guard. Was this merely politics as normal, the natural transition from a Democratic regime to a Republican one in Annapolis? Hardly. These were not political jobs. The ousted include the commission's chief engineer, chief hearing examiner and director of accounting.

Indeed, PSC insiders say the firings couldn't have taken place except for a change in state personnel law. Reacting to a "brain drain" four years ago, the state raised senior salaries at the PSC - by removing them from civil service. The goal had been to keep these valued workers from seeking better-paying jobs at federal agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission. It was never to turn their jobs into political pawns. That's never happened under previous chairmen, Republican or Democrat.

The fired workers will no doubt find employment. The real losers here may be Maryland rate-payers. The PSC is entering a critical period, perhaps the most important in its 94-year history. Deregulation is under way. What should Baltimore Gas and Electric and other utilities be allowed to charge for delivering electricity? PSC officials are getting ready to decide. And, apparently, they'll have to make these choices without the benefit of some of their most experienced personnel. What are the odds that the rate structure will be fair? They appear to have diminished considerably. In this new world of choice, the rights of citizens need to be protected. If anything, the obligations of the PSC are increasing - the agency must be able to find and investigate problems.

Mr. Schisler is a 34-year-old lawyer who used to be a delegate. He's not an experienced administrator. Why would he fire some of the commission's most valued employees at such a critical time? It's difficult to even imagine a justification - and since Mr. Schisler isn't talking, imagining one is the only justification available. It doesn't help his cause that he chose to do it a month after his state Senate confirmation and a week after the General Assembly session closed, leaving lawmakers without a chance to object.

People wonder how scandals such as Enron happen. Surely, lobotomizing a regulatory agency is a good way to get one started. You don't treat public employees this way. You don't treat anyone short of a convicted criminal this way. Now the rest of us can wait for the real power failure - a Public Service Commission left in the dark. In the end, we all get to foot the cost of that blackout.

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