PSC meeting sparking anger

Black legislators decry omission of official

Schaefer assails Ehrlich


The battle over electric rates provoked bitter political exchanges yesterday as black lawmakers complained that a private meeting between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top aides and the four Republican appointees on the Public Service Commission excluded the lone black member.

Also, Ehrlich was subjected to insults and sarcasm from Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, usually an ally, who decried the governor's failure to cushion a 72 percent boost in electric rates when price caps expire this summer. The average residential customer of Baltimore Gas and Electric is projected to pay an additional $743 annually.

Sitting side by side at a Board of Public Works meeting, Ehrlich told Schaefer he is looking for solutions but didn't provide specifics.

Seemingly disgusted by Ehrlich's inaction, Schaefer did the politically unthinkable - he compared Ehrlich to the previous governor, Parris N. Glendening, a Schaefer enemy.

"This is Glendening Jr.," Schaefer said, prompting murmurs in the packed hearing room as Ehrlich scowled.

When Ehrlich pointed out that he was in Congress when deregulation was approved in 1999 during Glendening's tenure, Schaefer sarcastically retorted, "I must apologize for being interested in saving the taxpayers money."

Schaefer also chided Ehrlich for "secret negotiations" that he said were held by his administration.

"They're not secret, and they're not just within the administration," Ehrlich insisted.

Schaefer told reporters after the meeting that Ehrlich needs to do more.

"Nobody has done a damn thing about the rates," he said. "People are going to get a 72 percent increase, and they're sitting here twiddling their thumbs in the breeze."

"And that head of the Public Service Commission," Schaefer continued, referring to PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler, "he used to be a good man, but he's lost something."

Spotted in hallway

Ehrlich Chief of Staff James C. DiPaula Jr. described Tuesday's meeting, which excluded PSC member Harold Williams, as an impromptu encounter that took place after DiPaula spotted Schisler in a State House hallway.

The Legislative Black Caucus argued that Williams, the lone Glendening appointee, was intentionally excluded.

"They said they just happened to have a meeting. Chip said they just happened to come down. Well, my response is, why didn't someone just happen to call Williams on his cell phone to include him?" said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and a member of the Black Caucus who organized a news conference to address the issue.

Williams, the only Democratic appointee, has complained that the board was not given enough options, and that the sharp rate increase would force poor people - many of them minorities - to choose among food, rent and electricity. DiPaula said he asked to talk to Schisler, and the chairman agreed, bringing the other three commissioners with him. Ehrlich Deputy Chief of Staff Edward B. Miller also attended the meeting.

The group "had a very good discussion," DiPaula said, adding that he subsequently spoke to Williams on Tuesday and that they agreed to meet.

"I look forward to meeting with him," DiPaula said. "I'm happy to discuss with him once again what happened and any options and opportunities we might have to mitigate the rate increases."

"Certainly there was no attempt to exclude Williams from the meeting," said Chrissy Nizer, a spokeswoman for the PSC. "He is a full member of the commission, a full team member. There was no exclusion of him. The meeting with the governor's staff was, frankly, by happenstance."

McFadden disagreed. "For a body to have a meeting ... and not include its only African-American member calls into question what happened," he said.

Williams said yesterday that he saw three of his fellow commissioners in their Baltimore office Tuesday morning, but that he had no idea they were going to Annapolis or would meet with the governor's staff.

"I saw them and spoke to them as I went through the hallway," said Williams. "I was there [Tuesday]."

Williams said a staff member told him after the Tuesday meeting that the commissioners were discussing an alternative to the plan that the PSC announced last week to help customers cope with the rate spike. The proposal would hit customers with a 21 percent increase in July, charging them 5 percent interest to spread out the remaining costs over two years.

"It doesn't stand to reason that they would be walking around the halls to share that plan with just anyone," said Williams, flanked by black lawmakers during the news conference. "They are insulting my intelligence in this thing."

Lawmakers appear to be uniting around a plan that would limit the rate increase to 15 percent this July, with the remainder phased in over three years. Also, some are seeking to recoup $528 million that customers paid the utility to compensate it for an anticipated loss in the value of its power plants - a loss that never materialized.

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