The Importance of an Independent Public Counsel for Florida | Opportunity For All Floridians

The Importance of an Independent Public Counsel for Florida

When it comes to regulating the utility industries, the role of Florida’s Public Service Commission (PSC) cannot be overstated. This important government body is responsible for ensuring that consumers receive safe, reliable, and affordable services—electricity, natural gas, telephone, water, and wastewater. To achieve this goal, the PSC needs an independent team of dedicated individuals who will act exclusively in the best interests of the public, and this is where the role of the Office of Public Counsel becomes vital.

J.R. Kelly, former Office of Public Counsel, advocates against a proposed rate increase from Florida Power & Light at a Public Service Commission hearing, August 2012. The Florida Channel

In my opinion, the Office of Public Counsel is one of the most important positions interacting with the PSC. The Public Counsel acts as a watchdog, advocating on behalf of Florida’s utility customers in proceedings in front of the Public Service Commission (and before federal regulatory authorities and before the Florida and federal courts). In fact, the mission of the Public Counsel is actually to “provide legal representation to the people of Florida.” The Florida Supreme Court, in “Citizens v. Mayo,” described the reasons for creating this office as “the realization that the citizens of the state cannot adequately represent themselves in utility matters.” 

The Florida Supreme Court went on to say that the rate-setting function of the PSC is best performed “when those who will pay utility rates are represented in an adversary proceeding by counsel at least as skilled as the counsel for the utility company.” This is no small feat, as these companies are some of the largest and most powerful organizations in the world, and the lawyers they hire for rate hearings are some of the best that money can buy.

The Office of Public Counsel has an important job of reviewing and evaluating proposed rate changes by utilities. The Counsel is supposed to make sure the rates are fair and not too high for consumers. And the Counsel is supposed to make these points aggressively in an “adversary proceeding.”

In my opinion, an independent Public Counsel is essential for the PSC to fulfill its mandate of ensuring that the public receives safe, reliable, and affordable services from the utility industries. The Counsel acts as a watchdog, providing a vital check against the interests of the companies and ensuring that the public is being fairly represented in all regulatory proceedings.

However, for the Public Counsel to effectively carry out these responsibilities, it is important that the position be held by an individual who has not been compromised by lobbying efforts from the utilities. This is where the role of the Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight (JCPCO) comes in. The Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight is made up of members of both the Florida House and Senate and is responsible for appointing a Public Counsel every four years. Because of the important role of the Public Counsel, the Joint Committee should choose candidates who have not lobbied for the utility companies, and who will therefore act impartially in the best interests of the public.

Lobbyist Richard Gentry was appointed by a legislative committee in February 2021 to serve as the chief lawyer representing the public before the Public Service Commission in rate cases. [ The Florida Channel ]

To summarize, the Public Counsel and the Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight play a critical role in ensuring the Public Service Commission (PSC) can fulfill its mandate. By choosing candidates who have not been influenced by lobbying efforts from the utilities, the JCPCO can help to ensure that the Public Counsel acts impartially and in the best interests of the public. This, in turn, allows the PSC to effectively regulate the utility industries and ensure that consumers receive safe, reliable, and affordable services.

Take Action:

We need a consumer-focused Public Counsel at the Public Service Commission

Write to the Joint Committee On Public Counsel Oversight and tell them: appoint an independent Public Counsel, not an industry lobbyist!
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