Crist Puts Balbis on the PSC; Scott Looms Over Choice

By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida
By: Keith Laing, The News Service of Florida

Tallahassee, FL - In a move that may last only a few weeks, Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday named Eduardo Balbis to the Public Service Commission to fill the panel’s final vacancy left by the departure of former chairwoman Nancy Argenziano, another Crist appointee.

Balbis, 38, was selected by Crist in September along with former city of Tampa lawyer Julie Brown to replace the outspoken Argenziano and Commissioner Nathan Skop, who were both ousted earlier this year by lawmakers who said they did not get along well with other commissioners. Both Skop and Argenziano have been highly critical of the state’s largest investor-owned utilities.

Balbis, an assistant city administrator for West Palm Beach, will serve the last month of Argenziano's term before beginning a four-year term of his own. That four-year term, however, could be cut short by Gov-elect Rick Scott, who has the power to recall Crist's picks as soon as he takes office in January. Crist did as much for former Gov. Jeb Bush when he took office in 2007, replacing Bush’s final two picks with Argenziano and Skop.

On Monday, Crist had no additional comment on Balbis’ appointment, but in September the governor said his pick was experienced enough to serve on the PSC even though he had never worked in electric, telephone or water industries overseen by the panel. Crist has generally favored candidates who do not work in the utility industry or state government, a tendency that has subjected his picks to several strong rebukes from lawmakers.

"Eduardo's duties overseeing municipal utilities and public works during the past three years have already given him the opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to protecting consumers," Crist said in September. "As an engineer, he also understands the importance of safeguarding Florida's fresh water supply."

Scott’s Fort Lauderdale-based transition office declined comment Monday on Crist’s decision but has told the News Service that the governor-elect would be reviewing the PSC picks and a host of other appointments made by Crist.

"Once in office, Gov.-elect Scott will be doing a top to bottom review of all agencies," Scott transition spokesman Trey Stapleton said in an e-mail last week. "He will make a decision on agency leaders after he considers all assessments and recommendations."

Though Crist said Balbis was the best man for the job of replacing Argenziano early, he took much longer to fill the former state lawmaker’s PSC seat than he did the last time there was an unexpected vacancy on the utility regulation panel.

In October 2009, Crist announced the early appointment of David Klement 17 days after then-Commissioner Katrina McMurrian stepped down early when Crist didn't reappoint her. Klement began serving right away - though he was later voted off the PSC by lawmakers.

This time, Crist took more time than the 30 days normally allotted to him to replace Argenziano, who resigned seven weeks ago. The PSC maintained a quorum without her, though, so has continued to meet.

Crist’s office did not make note of the delay in announcing Balbis’ appointment Monday, but some PSC observers have attributed the wait to the uncertainty over what might happen when Scott takes over.

Argenziano, who left the state Senate in 2007 to join the PSC, quit the panel earlier than expected prior to Scott’s election to campaign against him. The former Gainesville area lawmaker heavily criticized the PSC while she was a member and called it “a fetid pit” that is too close to the industries it regulates.

A spokesperson for the PSC told the News Service Monday Balbis would begin serving soon, but likely would not be sworn-in before tomorrow’s regularly scheduled meeting.

The PSC is scheduled to consider several issues involving Florida Power & Light that have been put off while the panel awaits word from the courts on whether Commissioner Nathan Skop can rule in FPL cases. Skop is locked in a legal battle with FPL, the state's largest power company, which has alleged he is biased against it and should recuse himself from FPL cases.

If the court has not ruled, the agenda items may be deferred again. Balbis’ interim appointment runs through Jan. 1, 2011.

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