Ehrlich gets list of PSC candidates

July 01, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Legislative leaders presented Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday with a bipartisan list of judges, former lawmakers and utilities experts to rebuild an embattled Public Service Commission accused by many of failing to protect consumers facing steep electricity rate increases.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller gave the governor 10 names, as is required by a law passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly last month. The measure was adopted during a special session called to address a looming 72 percent Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. rate increase.

The Republican governor vetoed the bill and has long argued that the current commission is not to blame for rising electricity costs. The Assembly overrode his veto, saying new regulators were needed to restore public confidence.

Busch and Miller nominated as finalists for board chairman Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, who has sat on the bench since 1977 and who ruled in 2004 that the state had unlawfully underfunded city schools; retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Thomas J.S. Waxter Jr.; and former PSC member Susanne Brogan.

The nominations could have practical repercussions for residents, a substantive development in a months-long battle over electricity bills that has often been dominated by political charges and countercharges.

Depending on the outcome of a lawsuit, five of the appointees will sit on the new commission. The PSC has broad oversight of power companies, water utilities and phone service providers.

The reconstituted agency will implement the Assembly's plan to limit BGE increases to 15 percent for 11 months. The new PSC will also suggest ways to handle rising electricity costs in the future.

"This new commission is going to be charged with much more than just setting rates," Miller said. "It has a very broad charge."

Though the two have frequently clashed in the past, Busch and Miller said they joined to review resumes sent in by about 40 candidates. Some applied after reading news accounts of the expected vacancies on the commission. Others were recommended by hometown lawmakers.

Busch said the governor's staff was invited to submit names but declined.

"There were four or five other individuals who we labored over who didn't make the list," Busch said. "If [Ehrlich] picks any combination of five, the state will have a very well-rounded Public Service Commission. ... It's a pretty solid list."

Several Republicans said that the candidates are experienced and that the list offers a fair balance of political affiliation. But they called the underlying decision by Democrats to unseat the commission a politically motivated power grab intended to undercut the governor, who appointed four of the commission's five members.

"As I look at the list of names, obviously there are some very good people on there, some of whom I know well and would serve well," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland. "But I will tell you if the current PSC was on that list, I would say the exact same thing."

The new law requires Ehrlich by July 15 to select five members from two lists to serve on the commission. One list contains three names for a possible chairman or chairwoman, and the other contains 10 candidates for the four remaining positions. The three candidates for the chair are repeated on the list of 10.

If Ehrlich does not choose, Busch and Miller will.

Ehrlich has suggested that he might not select the commissioners, but a spokesman for the governor said yesterday that it is too early to say whether he will act.

At an event yesterday at which he officially filed for re-election, Ehrlich argued that Democratic lawmakers who approved electricity deregulation in 1999 were to blame for the proposed rate increases.

"To blame this Public Service Commission for implementing the law that [the Democrats] drafted is a bad joke to the people," Ehrlich said. "Whether you're talking about the People's Counsel or the Public Service Commission, it's politics in its rawest form."

The law also replaces the People's Counsel, a lawyer appointed by the governor who represents consumers before the PSC.

Other PSC candidates include Raymond E. Beck Sr., a former Republican lawmaker from Carroll County who served on the Circuit Court there; Michael J. Travieso, a former Maryland People's Counsel and a current assistant attorney general; Harold D. Williams, the lone Democratic appointee on the current commission; Paula M. Carmody, an assistant attorney general and former assistant people's counsel; and J. Ernest Bell II, a former Democratic delegate from St. Mary's County.

Another candidate, Lawrence Brenner, an administrative law judge with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has one of the most extensive backgrounds in utilities among those recommended. Brenner was also a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission administrative judge during the 1980s.

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