Beleaguered PSC member resigns

Boutin's departure gives O'Malley more control over agency

February 24, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

A Public Service Commission member who was among those sharply criticized by Democrats for the panel's handling of a BGE rate increase resigned yesterday, giving Gov. Martin O'Malley more control over the agency as it launches a review of Maryland's utility regulations.

Charles R. Boutin, who was one of two remaining appointees of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on the board, said that the departure was entirely his idea. The former Republican legislator said he decided that he had had enough of the stress from the high-profile position and wanted to pursue career options in the private sector.

"It was my call, no pressure, no nothing," Boutin, 64, said. "It's been a tough year, as you know, personally and everything else, and I have two or three different opportunities I'm looking at right now. ... I enjoy the work, but frankly, it's been emotionally draining."

Democratic leaders said they were pleased at Boutin's decision and looked forward to moving on from last year's dispute.

"That's good news," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said of Boutin's resignation.

O'Malley, a Democrat, made criticism of the Public Service Commission's handling of last year's proposed 72 percent rate increase a major theme of his gubernatorial campaign last year. He derided the commission as unprofessional and too cozy with utilities.

The governor effectively had control of the commission before Boutin's resignation. But an additional seat on the commission will enable O'Malley to more clearly put his stamp on the regulatory agency as it re-evaluates Maryland's decision to deregulate the electric industry and searches for a way to blunt the impact of a 49 percent BGE rate increase due in June.

The Ehrlich appointee who was serving as chairman, former Republican Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, resigned last month. O'Malley named former Maryland Insurance Commissioner Steven B. Larsen, known as a consumer advocate, to replace him. O'Malley also named former PSC member Susanne Brogan to fill a vacant spot on the commission and renominated Harold D. Williams, the last Democrat on the board, giving O'Malley a majority of the votes on the board.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the Southern Maryland Democrat who is chairman of the committee that handles utility issues, said it was important for O'Malley to get another appointment.

Middleton said he thinks highly of Larsen but that the former insurance regulator has no experience in the utility industry.

"He's a quick study and a good manager, but he's going to have to rely a lot on the staff while he gets up to speed," Middleton said. "It would be really helpful to have another member of the commission who has that experience."

O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said he expects the governor to be able to nominate a new commissioner quickly. The administration had considered and vetted other candidates before O'Malley nominated Larsen and Brogan, so the governor has a good sense of who has experience in utility regulation, he said.

Some of those whose names have surfaced as potential nominees before include former People's Counsel Michael Travieso and former PSC member Catherine I. Riley.

Michael R. Enright, O'Malley's chief of staff, sent a letter yesterday to Maryland Budget Secretary T. Eloise Foster asking her to review the salary structure at the PSC, suggesting that increases might be necessary "to attract top-flight talent ... both as commissioners and staff."

Commission members currently make just under $100,000 a year. Schisler made $117,000 as chairman, but administration officials said yesterday that Larsen would be paid $185,000 a year.

Before taking the job, Larsen was president and chief executive officer of Amerigroup Maryland Inc., a large health insurer, and an officer with the national Amerigroup corporation. Even with the $185,000 salary, Enright said in the letter, "He is making a considerable financial sacrifice, both because of the vast salary differential and because of the loss of equity participation opportunities," meaning stock options.

Larsen issued a statement yesterday wishing Boutin well. He said he looks forward to working with whomever O'Malley appoints to fill Boutin's slot.

Boutin said he knows Larsen well from the time when he was in the legislature and Larsen was insurance commissioner. Boutin said the new PSC chairman is bright and capable, but he said that he doubts Larsen will be able to do more than he and his colleagues did to stem rising electricity rates.

It is the rising cost of fuel, bottlenecks in electric transmission lines, limited generation capacity and other factors that drive up prices in the deregulated environment, Boutin said, not the actions of the PSC.

"I said to him, `I hope you find something we didn't,'" Boutin said.

Boutin's last day on the job will be March 7, his 65th birthday. He said he believes it was politics and the pressure of an election year that transformed the PSC from an obscure agency into the object of tremendous public scrutiny.

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