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PSC Meeting: Just a Coincidence

Maryland's utility regulators say they did not violate the state's Open Meetings Act when four commissioners talked privately last month about rising electricity rates with aides to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.

Rather it was a coincidential meeting of four out of five commissioners who happened to be in Annapolis, according to a defense filed Monday with the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board.

Chairman Ken Schisler had come to brief the governor's staff on Baltimore Gas and Electric's rate increases. Commissioner Allen M. Freifeld was there to back him up with some analysis. Commission Charles R. Boutin was there to meet with lawmakers on the rate increases.

Since Schisler knew Boutin was in town, he called Boutin's cell phone to see if he wanted to join in the discussion with the governor's staff, according to the filing. It just so happened that Boutin was in the State House canteen with a fourth commissioner, Karen A. Smith. They all joined for a 1 p.m. meeting. The only one missing with Commissioner Harold D. Williams, also the only member appointed by a Democrat.

The state's Open Meetings Compliance Board has 30 days to review the response to complaints from Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore) and the Capital-Gazette Newspaper of Annapolis.

A lawyer for the embattled commission said the meeting was initiated by Ehrlich's staff DiPaula and meant to discuss a "previous decision" - not to "deliberate and decide" pending policy.

In response to complaints about the closed-door meeting, the PSC's general counsel Susan Stevens Miller said commissioners briefed the governor's aides on their plans to help Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers cope with a 72 percent rate increase this summer.

The PSC, which is reviewing a pending merger between BGE and a Florida power company, has come under increasing criticism since it announced rate hikes for BGE and Pepco customers in March.

The private meeting prompted a separate complaint yesterday from the non-profit Maryland Public Interest Research Group, which asked the PSC to disqualify chairman Kenneth D. Schisler and the three other commissioners from reviewing the merger. Their conversation with Chief of Staff Chip DiPaula, according to the group, violated the commission's prohibition against unofficial discussions about a pending case.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic challenger to the Republican governor, also called on the PSC yesterday to disclose the compensation Constellation executives will receive if the merger is approved and an analysis of the $11 billion deal provided by BGE.

City Solicitor Ralph Tyler asked the PSC in a filing to "remove the inappropriate cloak of secrecy that BGE has invoked to shroud the information from public scrutiny."

Ann E. Marimow

By Phyllis Jordan  |  April 24, 2006; 6:53 PM ET
Categories:  General Assembly  
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