Richard Gentry, a lobbyist and former longtime general counsel of the Florida Home Builders Association, was unanimously approved with no debate Tuesday to represent the public in utility regulatory cases.
Gentry was the only applicant interviewed by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight to serve as state public counsel. But committee members defended the process to fill the position, which drew four applicants, three of whom withdrew before interviews last week.
“I'm proud of the process that went on,” said Rep. Chip LaMarca, a Lighthouse Point Republican who is co-chairman of the committee. “Once you open up a process of procurement, you can't dictate what's going to come your way. And we have a very qualified candidate.”
Two of the applicants landed jobs between the time they submitted applications and the completion of background checks. A third applicant dropped out over a requirement for the public counsel’s office to be in Leon County.
Gentry, who spent nearly 25 years as general counsel of the homebuilders’ group, said last week he viewed replacing Kelly as a way to serve the public.
On Tuesday, Gentry admitted to being surprised at being the lone applicant to be interviewed for the position.
“I wondered from time to time if they knew something I didn't know,” Gentry said before adding that he knows two of the other applicants and considered them “worthy opponents.”
The position became open when Public Counsel J.R. Kelly resigned last month after serving in the job since 2007.
When Florida Power and Light, Duke Power and Tampa Electric were preparing to ask the Public Service Commission to allow them to raise their rates last year, Senate President Wilton Simpson successfully pushed legislation that imposed a 12-year term limit on the public counsel, as was reported by The Tampa Bay Times.
After environmental and consumer groups complained that the legislation appeared to be specifically targeting Kelly, Simpson amended the bill to set the 12-year term limits to start in 2020 — meaning the new rule wouldn’t apply to Kelly.
But, he was asked to apply for the job.
“I could read the writing on the wall and I could see that the legislature overwhelmingly voted to approve this bill and it was their preference that nobody serve more than 12 years. Whether I agree with that or not is absolutely irrelevant. The legislature had spoken,” Kelly said. “I decided the best thing would be for me to resign and let the OPC oversight committee choose a new Public Counsel.”
Investor owned utilities, including FPL and TECO, donated more than $9.2 million in Florida state elections over the past election cycle, according to the Energy and Policy Institute.
Incoming Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson, who introduced the legislation that led to former Public Counsel J.R. Kelly’s resignation, was a top recipient of utility contributions, with his political committee Jobs For Florida accepting $220,000.
Gentry, the incoming Public Counsel, spent the last year lobbying for Floridians for Government Accountability, a utility-backed nonprofit.
During Gentry’s first month as Public Counsel, FPL is expected to begin its rate case, in which it’s asking for a nearly $2 billion increase in base-rate revenues over the next four years. TECO also has an upcoming rate case, where it’s asking to raise it’s rates by $280 million to $295 million starting in 2022.