Bill would end tenure of long-time public advocate on utilities with major rate cases on the horizon

Florida Capitol
The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo Colin Hackley

Legislation that would force out veteran Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, who represents ordinary utility customers before the Florida Public Service Commission, passed its first committee test Monday on the strength of a lopsided Republican vote.

The bill (SPB 7052) would limit public advocates to as many as three four-year terms – 12 years total – in office, effective on July 1. Kelly has already reached that milestone.

The vote by the Committee on Innovation, Industry, and Technology came as the PSC prepared to undertake reviews next year of rates charged by Florida Power & Light Co. and Gulf Power Co.

Should the bill become law, that could potentially leave the ordinary ratepayers with an untested representative against powerful utilities with their armies of lawyers.

“There was not any magic to that number,” said bill sponsor Wilton Simpson when asked about the 12-year limit. Simpson chairs the committee and is in line to become Senate President next year presuming the Republicans retain control of the upper chamber. His district stretches through three counties north of Tampa Bay.

He compared the term limit to those for members of the Legislature but Democrats on the committee didn’t buy it.

“I don’t see this as being really necessary,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon II, who represents Broward and Miami-Dade Counties.

“With almost every job, certainly, I like to hope I get better at a job the more I learn about it. Experience has a lot of value,” said Sen. Gary Farmer of Broward County.

Randolph Bracy of Orange County was the only Democrat who voted “yes.” The final vote was 6-3.

Kelly had no comment on the substance of the legislation but said he serves at the Legislature’s pleasure. “If they decide they want somebody else to be public counsel, I will graciously and humbly step aside,” he said.

Representatives of environmental organizations argued the bill would jettison Kelly’s many years of experience and expertise as the big rate cases loom.

“Utilities will not be forced to give up their choice in representation,” said Earthjustice attorney Bradley Marshall. “It is vital for Floridians who care about utility bills to have a robust and independent public counsel like J.R. Kelly.”

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto – presiding while the committee discussed its chairman’s bill – cut off Leighanne Boone of the Rethink Energy Action Fund when she, too, praised Kelly.

“This is not a confirmation hearing for Mr. Kelly. If you could speak to the issue which is the subject of the bill and not make it about individual people. I let Mr. Marshall do that, but this is not about Mr. Kelly particularly,” the Lee County Republican said.

Boone continued: “We cannot allow this position to be politicized by a reappointment every four years. The independence of this office protects the citizens of Florida by ensuring that this office is not subject to the whims of political pressure.”

The Legislature created the Office of Public Counsel in 1974 and controls it through a joint oversight committee – governors have nothing to say in the matter. Under existing law, public counsel win open-ended appointment subject to review every two years. Somehow, the committee neglected to do that for Kelly for many years. He has served since 2007.

The language of the proposed legislation suggests that public counsel might not need to win affirmative reappointment after an initial term. “A person may continue as public counsel beyond the 4-year term until his or her successor is appointed and takes office, unless the person is removed by a vote of the [joint] committee,” it says.