Electric Rate Meeting Violated Law, Suit Says

By Ann E. Marimow
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Maryland's primary regulatory agency violated the state's Open Meetings Act when four commissioners met privately last month with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. 's aides to talk about rising electricity rates, according to a complaint filed yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The nonprofit Maryland Public Interest Research Group has asked the court to disqualify Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler and three other commissioners from reviewing a pending merger involving the state's largest electric utility and to force the commission to make public any notes from the meeting.

The commission is under fire from lawmakers for approving electricity rate increases of as much as 72 percent for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers. Pepco's rates are set to increase an average 38.5 percent for residential customers this summer.

The General Assembly passed legislation last week to dismiss the commissioners and hold up the merger between BGE's parent company, Constellation Energy Group, and a Florida power company.

The lawsuit stems from a meeting between Ehrlich Chief of Staff Chip DiPaula Jr . and commissioners, which DiPaula described at the time as a "presentation of the facts" that are part of the governor's "aggressive pursuit of solutions." The meeting, he said, was initially intended as a briefing by Schisler, and the three other commissioners happened to be in Annapolis.

According to the lawsuit, the gathering violated the law because there was no notice of the meeting and no minutes made available to the public.

"We don't even know what was discussed at that meeting and whether anything came from it," said Brad Heavner of MaryPIRG. "The first step is to find out what happened behind closed doors."

Democratic lawmakers were also critical of the meeting because the gathering excluded the one member of the PSC who was not appointed by Ehrlich (R).

Christine Nizer , a spokeswoman for the PSC, said she could not comment yesterday because the commission needed time to review the complaint. Last month, Nizer said the gathering was not a "transaction of public business," as defined by the public meetings law. In addition, she said, the law makes exceptions for "chance meetings or encounters," which, she said, "this certainly was."

Bill Would Make Funds Available for Campaigns

State lawmakers could scale back their fundraising and apply for public money to run political campaigns under legislation narrowly approved yesterday in the House.

Backed by a coalition of nonprofit groups, the bill is intended to change the image of legislators beholden to special interests.

"We have a public perception problem," said Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County) before the bill passed, 79 to 56. "It starts in Washington, but it's come to Maryland."

Opponents, however, said that the measure would do nothing to stop large corporate donations and that the state's money would be better spent elsewhere.

"It sounds good," said Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert). "But if you think it takes the special interests out of the game, you're fooling yourself."

The bill creates a voluntary system that would require interested candidates to collect at least $10 from a number of registered voters equal to one quarter of 1 percent of the district's population. House candidates would receive $40,000 for a primary race and $40,000 for the general election. Senate candidates would receive $50,000 for each contest.

The measure's fate is less certain in the Senate, where even proponents acknowledged the challenge. "We've always had a multiyear strategy," said Tom Hucker of Progressive Maryland, a Montgomery County-based advocacy group.

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