Calls renewed to dismiss PSC members

Lawmakers criticize commission for private vote, urge special Assembly session


Democratic legislative leaders - and a key Republican - renewed calls yesterday to throw out the members of the Public Service Commission during a special session of the General Assembly after the regulatory agency voted to approve an electric rate deferral plan backed by the governor.

Lawmakers suggested that the commission's late-night vote Thursday did little to inspire public confidence and provided the most recent example of why commissioners deserved to be stripped of their offices.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said that if lawmakers reconvene in a special session, they should reconsider the bill they passed this year that would have fired the PSC's five members and required the appointment of a new panel. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who selected four of the commissioners, vetoed the bill.

"If we do meet in the interim, that's got to be an integral part of any bill that we pass," Miller said, adding that he is leaning toward backing a special session.

Legislators criticized the commission for meeting in private Thursday - just two hours after the conclusion of a long and contentious public hearing on the matter - to vote 4-1 for the plan Ehrlich negotiated with Constellation Energy, the parent company of BGE.

"I'm sure it's going to add impetus for the general public and the members to revisit the issue" of revamping the commission, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

During the 90-day General Assembly session, many lawmakers railed against the commission, charging that it favors the interests of the utility companies over ratepayers. The legislature approved a bill by veto-proof margins to effectively dismiss all five commissioners and replace them with appointees sanctioned by the General Assembly. With members focused on crafting a solution to the electricity rate increase problem, however, the matter was not taken up again after Ehrlich's veto.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said yesterday that lawmakers missed their chance during the session to address the makeup of the commission. "They had the opportunity in the legislative session, just like they had an opportunity to help ratepayers, and they chose not to," Fawell said.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who voted for the bill, said commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler should be the first one out the door.

"Ken Schisler should say goodnight and turn out the lights," Frosh said. "I don't believe he's capable of leading the agency in a competent and fair way."

Frosh said Ehrlich needs to take responsibility for the PSC's vote this week, which was unexpected and came after a raucous public hearing during which residents expressed great confusion about how the rate reduction proposal would work. Though the meeting doesn't appear to violate open meeting laws, according to a spokesman for the Maryland attorney general, Frosh said it showed "egregious errors in judgment."

In addition to Schisler, Ehrlich's appointees to the board are attorney Allen M. Freifeld; Karen A. Smith, who served previously as the governor's director of intergovernmental affairs; and Charles R. Boutin, a former member of the House of Delegates who was reported recently to have used his state computer to e-mail a convicted prostitute.

As lawmakers and company officials worked to hammer out a plan in the waning days of the session, e-mails were released by the Harford County sheriff's office revealing that Boutin, who is married with three children, met with the prostitute in a Towson hotel room last October, while he was a member of the PSC.

The fifth member of the commission, Harold D. Williams, was appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Williams, who was the lone vote Thursday against Ehrlich's rate reduction plan, said yesterday "that more time should have been allotted for deliberation on such a critical situation." Still, he said he treasures his job on the commission and hopes he'll be able to keep it.

"I was sent there to do a job, and that was for the people of Maryland, and I take that very seriously," Williams said. "And I hope and pray that I will be able to continue to provide that level of service to the people of Maryland because it means a lot to me."

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, called the Thursday vote a "rubber stamp" for a plan that he said serves the interests of the utility companies. Pipkin said he voted for the bill to shake up the PSC, and he would do it again.

"I just think instead of the Public Service Commission, it's become the Public Sellout Commission," he said. "They sold out consumers. They seem to be acting with no shame, and shame on them."

Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the Thursday night vote showed that the commission discovered "a neat way to get around the open meeting law."

Barve said the governor's deal, with the PSC's blessing, should be eliminated in favor of the compromise plan that died the last day of the General Assembly session. Barve wants to see a special session to revisit that proposal and the bill to shake up the PSC.

"I don't think the commission has behaved in good faith in the public service," he said. "I think the public interest appears not to be at the forefront of their thoughts."

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