Florida Public Service Commissioner Art Graham recently brought to a close his successful tenure as Chairman of the state’s chief regulatory authority. Appointed in July 2010 by then-Governor Charlie Crist, after three months of service, Graham became Chair of the Commission.
Now, as he hands over the reins of Chairman to fellow Commissioner Ron Brisé, Graham leaves behind a regulatory legacy that prioritized economic growth initiatives and programs to mitigate consumer rate increases.
Graham’s Chairmanship followed the trends he set in his previous work. An engineer by trade, Graham worked with Georgia Pacific in optimizing the paper mill’s use of fresh water, and served on the Jacksonville, Florida City Council, which has budget oversight of the city’s municipal electric company – JEA.
At his appointment, Crist said “Art has a great track record of public service during the past 12 years, and as a councilman, he has already worked to protect utility consumers. His experience in the private sector has given him an understanding of the importance of ensuring the private sector’s responsible use of resources.”
In a recent conversation with Politic365, Graham embraced a people-first sensibility in reflecting on his term as Chair saying, “the key to all of the work we do is to ensure there are viable utility companies that provide water and electricity services at reasonable prices.”
His philosophy: people first.
The Commission was under heavy scrutiny and being criticized for lack of leadership and focus when Graham began his tenure. Faced with a relatively inexperienced Commission – of the five commissioners, four were new commissioners with little regulatory experience – Graham stated that he saw this as an opportunity to energize the commission and focus on the most critical issues facing Floridians.
Under Graham’s leadership the commission set out on a mission to use regulatory tools to help jump-start Florida’s economy and save consumers’ money. The PSC often met with consumer advocates and companies to explore synergistic opportunities to help consumers and the economy.
As an example, Graham ordered a third-party audit of the PSC in preparation for changes that needed to be made once a newly passed telecom deregulation bill took effect.
“In the 137 years of the PSC, there has never been a third-party audit,” Graham said of his decision. “We’ve had other government agencies come in and look at it, but we’ve never had anyone outside of the government to come in.”
Graham continued, “I thought it was a good idea to take an evaluative look at where we were and incorporate some best-practices being done at other PSCs around the country. There were things we were doing that were great and some things we could do better. It was eye-opening and has really helped us grow and better be able to serve consumers.”
Graham was not afraid to make tough decisions. Shortly after becoming Chairman, the PSC was faced with the need to set Florida’s utilities conservation goals. Under Graham’s leadership, the PSC declined to allow the aggressive goals that had been set by the previous Commission to cause a consumer rate impact that was too severe. While the decision was criticized by environmental groups, it is estimated that reversing the 2009 goals will save consumers about $1.3 billion in rate increases over the period between mid-2011-2014.
During his tenure, Graham “focused the Commission on being regulators instead of being politicians,” said Florida State Representative Alan Williams. “He brought back a level of professionalism, civility and dedicated service to the commission.”
Comprised of two African American men, two women and one Hispanic man, “the commission is in a great position,” Williams said, “especially with regard to the leadership and diversity.”
Among Graham’s many accomplishments, Williams is most impressed with “the work he is doing around deploying broadband to our un-served and underserved areas… it is of the utmost importance…that we can finally close that gap.”
According to Mike Miller, spokesman for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, in exclusive comments to Politic365, “Art is a consensus builder. He likes to get input from everyone before making any decisions and meet with all sides of any issues; and he has always understood the importance of putting consumers and community needs first.”
Miller, who got to know Graham during his tenure as a Councilman and Chairman of the First Coast MPO, also noted, “Art was very instrumental in developing a northeast Florida transportation commission study to find solutions for all seven northeast counties. Although he wasn’t a state representative, he worked to garner support for the study, helped with the delegation to get the study underway and got it passed in Tallahassee.”
Underscoring Miller’s assessment, John Delaney, former Mayor of Jacksonville and current President of the University of North Florida, says, “Art is a great listener – usually a shortcoming for elected officials who are used to doing the talking. As a result, he is very informed about both broad issues and on precise pieces of legislation. He even is able to get along with political opponents—also rare.”
As Chairman, Graham also prioritized the importance of opening up the lines of communication between the PSC and the public.
“We try reaching out as many ways as we can, as often as we can. Via the PSC Twitter feed and YouTube channel we have been able to engage with consumers directly,” he said. “It’s also been a very effective way of sharing programs consumers might not have been aware of.
“Right now things are very tough for everyone. For example, if you’re one of those 10.5% who are unemployed, you might benefit from being able to defer your power bill until next year. Most people aren’t aware of programs like L.I.H.E.A.P., the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
“Our work doesn’t end with simply informing the public,” he said, “we also offer advice on how to manage and conserve energy so that bills become manageable.”
Graham says he hopes the Commission will continue to ensure the state’s regulatory process and programs would lead to reasonable rates and reliable services for consumers, and a more stable regulatory environment focused on stimulating more investment in Florida and jobs for Floridians.
A supporter of Governor Rick Scott’s plan to bring 700,000 jobs to the state, Graham says, “the work at the commission should focus on contributing to that plan.”
“Keeping the lines of communication open is most important when it comes to the work the PSC does and how it interacts with consumers. We’re going to continue to ensure that viable companies are providing dependable power at reasonable rates.”
Now that Graham will no longer Chair the Commission, the rumor mill is alive with speculation that he is considering a position as CEO of JEA.
When asked about his plans for the future, Graham told Politic365, “I enjoy what I am doing. I want to continue serving Floridians.”