PSC sues in effort to avert firing

Injunction sought

new law labeled unconstitutional, politically inspired


The Public Service Commission filed suit yesterday to stop a new law that fires its five members, saying the measure is an unconstitutional power grab by a Democratic-controlled legislature looking to weaken a Republican chief executive.

Two weeks ago, in an effort to soften this summer's rise in BGE bills, the General Assembly approved a rate-relief plan that also reconstituted the PSC, which has been under attack for months as being too friendly to the utility industry.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed the bill last week, saying that the regulators, four of whom he appointed, were not to blame for the rate increase. The Assembly overturned his veto, and PSC members are supposed to be fired Friday.

Although the suit is not designed to affect BGE customers' bills, it will prolong the political issue that has dominated Maryland for months.

Ehrlich and his appointees at the PSC have been at odds with Democratic lawmakers and the governor's political opponents since March, when Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. announced a 72 percent rate increase to take effect July 1 and Democrats began criticizing the commission's response.

The suit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court by PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler, seeks a preliminary injunction to block the provisions of the law that remove the commissioners from their jobs, which pay the chairman $117,000 a year and the other four members a little less than $100,000.

The bill "is nothing more than a politically motivated attempt by the General Assembly to circumvent the express provisions of the Maryland Constitution, which only permits the removal of the incumbent commissioners for cause by the governor," the suit says.

If those provisions of the bill are upheld, the suit says, "no civil officer will be safe from the political whims of the General Assembly," the suit says. "Agencies such as the Parole Commission, the Workers Compensation Commission, State Board of Contract Appeals and others, all of whom make quasi-judicial decisions, will lose the independence which allows them to function in a fair, unbiased manner."

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell declined to comment on the suit. But Ehrlich said on Friday that he would "absolutely" encourage the PSC to file a suit. He said the courts are the people's last resort against the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman called Schisler a "legal loose cannon" yesterday and demanded that Ehrlich renounce the lawsuit.

"Ken Schisler sealed his fate when he got caught conspiring with special interests to manipulate legislation and trying to fool the public he was supposed to serve," Lierman said in a statement. "He and the rest of Ehrlich's appointees got caught doing what Ehrlich told them to do - backing up the special interests at every turn - when they should have been fighting for ratepayers."

Democrats and some Republicans in the General Assembly said the PSC has shown little regard for consumers in the BGE rates crisis. They say the public's confidence in the commission was shattered by revelations that Schisler exchanged e-mails with an industry lobbyist to cooperate on legislative action and that he arranged a hunting trip and other social outings with electric industry executives.

The Assembly also passed a bill to replace the PSC last spring, but the plan died after a gubernatorial veto. Schisler also sued then, winning a temporary restraining order blocking the bill. The Court of Special Appeals upheld the restraining order.

Criticism of the PSC reached its zenith in May when Baltimore successfully sued the commission in circuit court to force it to hold a new hearing on a rate increase deferral plan Ehrlich had negotiated. The judge ruled that the PSC had to consider a broader scope of testimony to determine whether so large a rate increase was necessary.

Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. ruled that the commission failed in its duty to hold a proper hearing and issued a "defective order."

A spokesman for Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said he has received a copy of the new suit and will defend the law. The spokesman, Kevin Enright, declined to comment further.

Curran's office called the law constitutional, and the attorney general has said that because the legislature created the PSC, it has the power to remake it.

One member of the commission, Harold D. Williams, said he does not wish to be a part of the suit. He said Schisler told him yesterday that he planned to sue and promised to show him a copy of the filing beforehand but did not. Williams said he was also included involuntarily in Schisler's original lawsuit in April.

"The General Assembly came up with this particular law, and I'm going to abide by it," said Williams, the only PSC member not appointed by Ehrlich. "I'm just tired of this whole thing."

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