Gov. Crist names Tampa lawyer to PSC

September 21, 2010

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist completed his forced remake of the Public Service Commission on Tuesday, appointing a Tampa lawyer and an environmental engineer to the board that regulates utilities.

The appointees, Julie I. Brown, a former Tampa assistant city attorney, and Eduardo Balbis, the West Palm Beach assistant city manager, will replace the governor's previous appointees, Nancy Argenziano and Nathan Skop, who were rejected for reappointment by the legislatively controlled nominating council.

Crist chose from a list of six candidates sent to him, rejecting the former executive director of the PSC, Mary Bane, Republican state Sen. Lee Constantine, former Progress Energy engineer James S. Baumstark, and former Missouri Public Service Commissioner Connie Murray. Balbis and Brown must now be confirmed by the Florida Senate.

The governor told the Times/Herald that he chose the two candidates that "really have compassion, the appropriate intellect, and an understanding that with the economy we're in this is not the time to be raising rates on people."

"I'm hopeful they will want to do what's right for promoting alternative energy, solar and wind power and try and protect our state and our state's environment," he said.

The decision comes on the last day Crist was allowed by law to announce his picks. If he had failed to act, the nominating council would have been allowed to select the candidates. Several people urged Crist to not make the selection and file suit challenging the nominating council's ability to make the pick.

Instead, Crist, who is running for the Senate without party affiliation, chose two Republicans who haven't worked with the utility companies but who bring regional and political diversity.

Brown, 35, in-house counsel for First American Corp., a title insurance underwriter, said she is eager to restore confidence in the commission and be an advocate for Florida residents.

"The commission has to balance a lot of interests," she said. "But most important is to look out for consumers and make sure they're getting fair and reliable services."

Brown formerly worked as a Tampa assistant city attorney. She helped negotiate the city's franchise agreement with Tampa Electric Co. She now serves on the city's Architectural Review Commission.

In 2007, Brown ran unsuccessfully in a three-way race for the Tampa City Council. She and incumbent John Dingfelder were locked in a fundraising battle, with both of them collecting nearly $150,000 for their campaigns.

A complaint was filed with the Florida Elections Commission against one of Brown's supporters, car dealer Jason Kuhn, who collected contributions for Brown from employees and then reimbursed them.

State law makes it a felony to give multiple campaign contributions to a candidate through other people. Kuhn said at the time that he wasn't aware of the law and did what he could to rectify the situation after he learned the donations might be illegal. The commission dismissed the complaint.

In November, Brown said she was considering another run for the council. And in July, she sought, but did not get, an appointment to Dingfelder's seat after he resigned to run for the Hillsborough County Commission.

This is the third time Brown has applied to the PSC and the first time she has made it as a finalist. She is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she earned a bachelor's degree in public relations and a law degree.

Balbis, 38, is chairman of the East Central Regional Water Reclamation Facility Board and a Crist appointee to the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council. He earned a graduate degree in environmental engineering from the University of Florida. He worked as an associate with Boyle Engineering from 2000 to 2006 and president of Circle Engineering from 1999 to 2000.

The nominating council rejected Argenziano and Skop in June, refusing to invite them for interviews for reappointment. Their terms expire in January.

Skop and Argenziano, along with the rest of the five-member PSC, unanimously rejected a $1.3 billion rate increase for Florida Power & Light and a $500 million rate increase for Progress Energy.

Also voting against the rate increases were Benjamin "Steve" Stevens and David Klement, whom the governor appointed to the commission last fall after saying it was time to 'clean house amid revelations that some PSC staff members were too close to the utilities they regulate.

After the vote, the Senate refused to confirm the appointment of Stevens and Klement, forcing Crist to choose from a new slate. He chose former state Rep. Ron Brise and former Jacksonville City Council member Art Graham.

"That was a great disappointment to me and to the consumers of Florida," Crist said, adding that his reform slate was caught up in ''the political gamesmanship of our state."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 St. Petersburg Times

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