Ehrlich people's counsel resigns

Her ouster was sought during BGE rate furor

January 06, 2007|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,Sun reporter

Maryland People's Counsel Patricia A. Smith, the state's top advocate for utility customers, left her post yesterday after a three-year tenure that culminated in legislation demanding her firing amid debate over rising electric rates.

Under Smith, the Office of the People's Counsel called for changes in electric deregulation laws and pursued an investigation into a 72 percent rate increase for customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. last spring. But the former prosecutor was accused by many lawmakers of not doing enough to protect consumers before and after the rate increase was announced. Smith has defended her work, saying the office did its best to protect consumers under state law.

The General Assembly in June called for the firing of both Smith and the then five-member Public Service Commission as part of legislation aimed at softening the rate increase and holding officials accountable.

The commission firings were later overturned in court, but Smith never challenged her dismissal.

The law contained a provision allowing her to keep her $98,579-a-year job until a new people's counsel is appointed by the state attorney general - something that has yet to occur.

Smith, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, told staff she plans to practice administrative law for a federal agency in Washington.

Smith's departure comes as the Office of the People's Counsel is at the center of debate over the future structure of Maryland's electric industry.

Several cases are pending before the commission that will probe past PSC decisions and determine whether Maryland continues on the path of deregulation or begins to reverse aspects of the 1999 legislation opening the state's energy market to competition.

Smith and other consumer advocates blame those regulations for creating the conditions that led to rising electric rates.

"There's a number of very experienced attorneys here and they've just stepped up and done their work as they always have," said Theresa V. Czarski, deputy people's counsel.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who was sworn in Tuesday, has not been officially notified of the resignation, which a spokesman said was submitted to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Gansler's office said there is no timeline for naming a replacement. Historically, such appointments came from the governor's office. But that authority switched to the attorney general as a result of the June legislation.

Kevin Enright, a spokesman for the attorney general, said Gansler has indicated he will be looking for someone with a broad background in both state and national regulatory issues. Finding a candidate with expertise in deregulated markets also will be key, he said.

A prosecutor who represented Baltimore City police and the poor, Smith faced skeptical legislative leaders almost from the moment of her appointment by Ehrlich in October 2003.

She was charged with filling the shoes of Michael J. Travieso, a longtime consumer advocate who was fired by Ehrlich as his administration set out to purge various state agencies of Democratic appointees. Travieso is mentioned as a potential replacement for Smith.

Smith's appointment came about six months before Kenneth D. Schisler, who was appointed chairman of the PSC by Ehrlich, fired five commission staff members with expertise in rate-setting, accounting and engineering.

The move fueled later perceptions that Schisler was remaking the commission in a manner more aligned with business.

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley has pledged to fire Schisler and the other three members of the commission after taking office. One of the five commissioners resigned last year and has yet to be replaced.

Smith aggressively defended her performance as people's counsel to lawmakers last spring, accusing her detractors of being beholden to power companies and blaming her predecessor for flaws in the deregulation settlement.

The people counsel's staff credit her with being a powerful advocate for low-income consumers, but say they are prepared to work with whomever takes office in coming weeks.

"As long as they want to do something to help the clients, I'm happy with that," said Czarski, the deputy people's counsel.

paul.adams@baltsun.com

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