Resign, Mr. Schisler

March 21, 2006

The chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, Kenneth D. Schisler, should resign. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who appointed Mr. Schisler in 2003, should demand his departure. Even Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and its parent company, Constellation Energy, should be eager for Mr. Schisler to leave his post.

The revelations last weekend of improper e-mail exchanges between the state's top utility regulator and an industry lobbyist are just that damning.

The breezy conversations strongly indicate that the pro-business slant that Mr. Ehrlich sought at the PSC is a cozy insider's game. In one e-mail, the industry lobbyist offers to raise issues for Mr. Schisler to the governor himself. Such dealings thoroughly taint critical decisions that the PSC could make in coming months on BGE's proposed 72 percent electricity rate increase this summer and on Constellation's planned merger with a Florida utility group - decisions that will directly affect 1.1 million Maryland households.

The e-mails also strongly argue for the General Assembly to step in and overtake the PSC in these decisions, asserting its authority over the rate increases and the merger - on which legislative leaders began deliberating yesterday.

"Where's the story?" Mr. Ehrlich asked Saturday on the radio in response to the e-mail disclosures. Well, here's the story:

Since his 2002 election, Mr. Ehrlich's team has transformed the PSC from neutral arbiter to industry pal by replacing four of five members of the commission; installing one of his former political operatives, Craig Chesek, as the agency's chief of staff; and engineering the firing of five top PSC staffers without apparent cause (and then using a cop to escort them out). Mr. Ehrlich also ousted longtime People's Counsel Michael J. Travieso, an aggressive advocate of consumer interests before the PSC.

Electricity deregulation, delayed by a 1999 agreement, is about to hit Maryland with a vengeance. Constellation Energy is about to enter into a national merger that will very likely move control of BGE out of state. The utility's customers are about to suffer a $743 leap in their annual electricity bills.

And now it's been shown that the man empowered to act as Maryland's chief utility watchdog has been playing e-mail footsie with an industry lobbyist - even down to asking him to do some of the agency's political legwork in Annapolis.

The Maryland code, under qualifications for PSC commissioners, speaks of the need for them to be "broadly representative of the public's interest" - not industry interests. Those criteria should certainly apply to its chairman. Mr. Schisler should step down.

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