Tallahassee, FL - As Florida Power & Light began pursuing an increase in base electric rates this year, a new group, Floridians Against Increased Rates, emerged to oppose the utility.
That has led to battles at the state Public Service Commission about whether the group, dubbed FAIR, should be able to take part in the high-stakes rate case and whether information about its members should be made public.
The commission on Wednesday will wade into part of the fight, as FAIR seeks to keep confidential certain information submitted to the commission about its members, such as names, mailing addresses and email addresses. Commission Chairman Gary Clark last month rejected the confidentiality request, but FAIR wants the full commission to reconsider his decision.
FAIR contends that the information is a trade secret and that disclosure could harm its members.
“FAIR submits that the commission should consider the harms that would result from disclosure of its members' personal information, which FAIR again believes and asserts is clearly ‘sensitive personally identifiable information,’" the group’s attorneys wrote in an Aug. 16 document. “From the perspective of FAIR's members, disclosure of their mailing addresses, email addresses, and telephone numbers would be equivalent to giving away FAIR's mailing list, which would expose FAIR's members to being peppered with unwanted emails or regular mail, or telephone calls, by persons who would otherwise be wholly unauthorized to know this information or their status as FAIR members.”
But in a recommendation for Wednesday’s meeting, commission staff members said the regulatory panel should not reconsider Clark’s decision to turn down the confidentiality request and pointed, in part, to the state’s public-records law. The recommendation said state law provides a public-records exemption for trade secrets but that FAIR had not adequately made its case.
“Staff believes that FAIR’s mere assertion that its membership roster comprises FAIR’s trade secret information is not enough to persuade the commission to grant confidential classification as requested,” the request said. “Staff believes that FAIR has failed to provide any details which demonstrates how the documents contain information relating to trade secrets and competitive interests, the disclosure of which would impair the competitive business of the provider of the information.”
The confidentiality issue is part of a broader dispute about FAIR as Florida Power & Light seeks approval of a proposed four-year settlement that would lead to base-rate increases for customers. The commission is scheduled Sept. 20 to start a multi-day hearing on the proposal, which includes proposed rate increases of $692 million in January and $560 million in 2023, with additional increases in 2024 and 2025 to pay for solar-energy projects.
The non-profit FAIR filed a motion to intervene in the case in May, and its leaders include two longtime Tallahassee players --- Mike Hightower, a former Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida vice president and lobbyist and former board member of the JEA municipal utility in Jacksonville, and Tom Herndon, who, among other things, served on the Public Service Commission in the 1980s and later was head of the State Board of Administration, which runs Florida’s pension fund.
Another leader is Frederick Bryant, a former general counsel of the Florida Municipal Power Agency, according to a FAIR filing. FAIR’s lawyers include Robert Scheffel Wright, who has long represented clients at the Public Service Commission.
But FPL has fought FAIR’s participation in the rate case, calling it a “shell organization” and raising questions about its financing and membership. Also, it said FAIR’s leaders do not live in areas served by FPL and that the organization does not have an office or telephone number.
“FAIR’s assertion that it has members and is the functional equivalent of a traditional membership organization does not hold up under any scrutiny,” FPL attorneys wrote in a document last month arguing that FAIR does not have legal standing to participate. “It is a shell organization that is run and financed by a group of individuals who are not affected by FPL’s rate petition. FAIR was created so that these undisclosed individuals or interests could intervene and participate in this proceeding.”
FAIR, however, fired back in a filing and said it had more than 770 members as of July 25.
“FPL's extensive attempts to cast aspersions on FAIR's intentions are no more than name-calling distractions, veritable red herrings, irrelevant to FAIR' s standing under applicable Florida law, and unsupported by any evidence whatsoever,” the filing said. “Besides touting minor aspects of FAIR' s membership and operational structure ( e.g., no office and no telephone), FPL spews out conclusory allegations that are wholly unsupported by any factual evidence.”
Base-rate cases are perhaps the biggest issues decided by the Public Service Commission, and several other organizations also are taking part in the FPL case. The state Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility cases, and some organizations support the proposed rate settlement, while others oppose it.
The commission has put off a decision until after the hearing about whether FAIR has legal standing to participate. If the commission rules against FAIR, FPL is requesting that testimony and evidence submitted by the group be stricken.