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Published: Tuesday, 4/10/2007

Utilities board nominees reappointed

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS Just days after being told their nominations were illegally decided behind closed doors, three commissioners and one hopeful were swiftly recommended again and reappointed yesterday by Gov. Ted Strickland to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

That left the makeup of the utility regulatory panel exactly as it was before Attorney General Marc Dann pointed out the open-meetings law violations and requested the resignations of the three members last week.

The move left some supporters of Mr. Strickland slack-jawed as they saw a rare opportunity slip through their fingers to remake in one fell swoop what they consider to be a regulatory panel prone to side with utilities over consumers.

Why did this happen over the Easter weekend? asked Sandy Buchanan of government watchdog Ohio Citizen Action.

The announcement was made late on Good Friday that they would meet on Easter Monday. It s a classic PR move when you don t want people to pay attention during a holiday weekend, Ms. Buchanan said. It s a cynical process.

The PUCO Nominating Council met in public session for the first time and struggled to come up with rules of operation to allow it to avoid the normal time-consuming process of seeking applications for the jobs. The board s acting chairman, Dan Helmick, characterized this as an extreme situation in which four of five commission seats were vacant.

The panel voted unanimously to send the same 16 names, with the exception of one candidate, that it had previously recommended for four seats.

The candidates included current Chairman Alan Schriber and Commissioners Ronda Hartman Fergus and Valerie Lemme, all appointees of Mr. Strickland s Republican predecessor, Gov. Bob Taft, and Paul Centolella, Mr. Strickland s first pick, who had yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

I don t think anybody can say that each one of these [incumbents] isn t qualified to be on the list to go to the governor, Mr. Helmick said.

Mr. Centolella is a former lawyer with the Ohio Consumers Counsel whom Mr. Strickland nominated to fill the vacancy created when Toledoan Judy Jones term expired. She had not sought a third five-year term.

The three incumbents submitted their resignations late Friday, knowing that the nominating council would meet yesterday and that Mr. Strickland intended to promptly put them back in the jobs they d just vacated.

These reappointments will maintain a continuity of service and institutional knowledge that will be an asset when Paul joins the commission, Mr. Strickland said. We will continue to work with the PUCO to ensure fair-priced utilities to all Ohioans and Ohio businesses.

Catherine Turcer, of Ohio Citizen Action, characterized the meeting as a dog and pony show.

They came in, they knew what was going to happen already, and the majority agreed, she said. If you don t believe the sunshine law makes a difference, this is the result you get.

The fifth commissioner, Don Mason, was not challenged because his 2003 appointment by Mr. Taft occurred beyond the reach of the statute of limitations.

Contact Jim Provance at:jprovance@theblade.com,or 614-221-0496.



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