Court stops firing of commissioners

Friday, July 7, 2006

Another twist in the Maryland Public Service Commission imbroglio unfolded today as the Court of Appeals halted the legislature’s firing of commissioners.

The two-paragraph order signed by Chief Judge Robert M. Bell prohibited the replacement of the five commissioners ‘‘pending further order of this court.” The order did not say when a further ruling will be issued.

A law passed last month fired the five commissioners, effective July 1, after some legislators said the commissioners too often sided with industries over consumers, particularly involving a proposed 72 percent residential rate hike requested by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis gave Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) a list of 10 names from which to choose replacements by July 15.

Ousted commission chairman Kenneth D. Schisler took his lawsuit that seeks to overturn the firings to the state’s highest court after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge last week denied Schisler’s request for a temporary restraining order.

Gregory M. Kline, one of Schisler’s attorneys, said today that the appeals court’s order effectively stops the firings ‘‘for now.”

‘‘We’re very pleased,” Kline said.

Schisler and other commissioners would remain in place ‘‘until the Court of Appeals judges say otherwise,” Kline said.

Neither Miller nor his spokeswoman could not be reached for comment about the appellate court order.

The injunction could delay a case involving New Frontiers Telecommunications, a small Hagerstown phone and Internet service provider, and New York telecommunications giant Verizon Corp. if the appeals court does not issue an order in a timely fashion, said Clint Wiley, president of New Frontiers.

‘‘I’m hopeful that they will settle this quickly,” Wiley said. ‘‘If they don’t, it will put us in a pretty difficult position. I call it ‘regulatory limbo.’”

In April, New Frontiers, a 12-employee business which has clients in Western Maryland, including Frederick, filed a complaint against Verizon alleging excessive charges and collection fees for lines and equipment New Frontiers leases from Verizon. The larger company claims New Frontiers owes it more than $2.2 million, while Wiley’s company says Verizon owes it more than $350,000, according to documents filed with the PSC.

Verizon officials asked that the case be dismissed, but the PSC denied that motion and set a pre-conference hearing for this week. That has since been delayed by a few weeks.

The commission is also reviewing a proposed $11 billion merger between Constellation Energy Group of Baltimore and FPL Group of Juno Beach, Fla.

Constellation, which hopes to join with FPL to form the nation’s largest energy supplier with combined annual revenues of $29 billion, is ‘‘eager and fully prepared” to work with whoever is on the PSC, spokesman Larry McDonnell said ‘‘Our hope is that things move forward expeditiously,” he said.

FPL echoes that hope, said Steve Stengel, a spokesman.

Small utilities, taxi businesses and electricity cooperatives also have cases pending before the PSC that have been thrown into limbo due to recent events. Another case before the PSC involves GML Transportation, a Cumberland taxi company, which claims drivers have not had a rate increase since 1985. The only changes have been surcharges for rising fuel costs, officials wrote in a document.

While Wiley understands legislators having to deal with the big rate increase requested by Constellation subsidiary Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. — which utility officials blame on the deregulation law that has not allowed them to recoup raw energy cost increases until this month — he said the politicians might not have considered the fate of companies such as his.

‘‘While solving one problem, they might have created another,” Wiley said.

Christy Reap, a spokeswoman for Verizon’s metropolitan Washington, D.C., operations, said company officials are watching the developments with the PSC.

‘‘But there are too many variables for us to comment at this point,” she said.

In an April letter to Wiley, Jonathan B. Smith, a Verizon vice president, accused New Frontiers officials of not fulfilling promises they made in prior meetings, such as paying ‘‘undisputed charges.”

The potential new commissioners — if that process is upheld — include several with experience on previous Public Service Commissions or energy-related boards. Those include Lawrence Brenner, a Boyds administrative law judge with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; former PSC member Susanne Brogan; and Harold Williams, who served on the ousted commission.

Brogan, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan and Thomas J.S. Waxter Jr., a Baltimore retired judge and former legislator, have been recommended to chair the commission. Two commission nominees — Paula M. Carmody and Michael J. Travieso — have worked for the Office of the People’s Counsel, which advocates for consumer issues before the commission.

The nominees all seem to have solid credentials, but getting some with experience in the PSC would help ease the transition period, Wiley said.

‘‘PSC commissioners usually have staggered terms so you don’t see new ones all at once,” he said. ‘‘Having at least a couple with experience would help.”

Brogan, Carmody, Travieso and Williams, in particular, fit that criterion, Wiley said.

Robert Rand

Assistant Business Editor

The Gazette

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