Officials at the state's Public Service Commission, which sets your utility rates, may be back to a practice they were criticized for less than two years ago: Mingling with employees of the companies they regulate.

Two commissioners spoke at length with utility officials at a conference in Washington D.C. last month. Three commissioners' top policy advisers exchanged about 70 calls with utilities during the past six months, according to state phone records obtained by the Sun Sentinel.

State law requires the five-member panel to maintain an appearance of objectivity and independence. That's why commissioners are barred from talking to utility representatives about pending issues without inviting consumer advocates and others to join the discussion. The two commissioners at the conference said they followed the law and didn't touch on pending matters. As for their aides, they aren't barred from talking to utilities in Florida, unlike some other states.

Critics say regulators should avoid socializing with utility representatives to promote the public's trust in its fairness. "You would think that with everything happening last year, the PSC down to the staff would be extra careful…they'd do everything they can to avoid the appearance of impropriety or favoritism," said Brad Ashwell, a consumer advocate with the Florida Public Interest Research Group.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has proposed a bill, SB 212, to increase the transparency of the commission and tighten laws on how it communicates with regulated groups.

The state Senate passed a similar bill the first week of last year's legislative session. The bill this year has not yet been considered by any committees. Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, said the bill would "begin to restore consumer confidence in the agency."

Conference

PSC Commissioners Lisa Edgar and Art Graham each spent more than 30 minutes chatting in a group that included Florida Power & Light Attorney Ken Hoffman at a cocktail reception held at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners conference in Washington, D.C., last month.

Graham at first estimated his one-on-one conversation with Hoffman lasted five minutes, but later said that it was probably longer because they discussed his appointment as chairman and the length of his term "for a little while." He said they also discussed upcoming confirmation hearings for the four newest commissioners and Gov. Rick Scott's recent move to revoke, then reinstate the PSC appointees.

FPL has several proposals before the commission, including one in June on how it will lower energy use. "All conversations FPL representatives had were totally appropriate," Mayco Villafana, a utility spokesman, wrote in an email.

Another evening, after a panel on water issues, Graham joined two officials from Aqua Utilities Florida for drinks in the hotel lobby for about an hour. When approached by a reporter, Graham anticipated one of the questions: "I paid for my own drink."

The officials said they mostly discussed personal issues such as Graham's daily commute from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. Graham said officials from Aqua, which has requested a rate hike that will be considered by the PSC in May, asked him if they could meet with him in Tallahassee. "I said sure…I encourage dialogue," he said.

Graham said pending matters never came up with Hoffman or Aqua.

Edgar said she and Hoffman discussed nothing related to FPL issues.

Both Graham and Edgar said they had similar conversations at the conference with Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, the state's utility customer advocate. The same rules apply to commissioners when they're talking to consumer advocates and others who appear before PSC.

Commissioners Eduardo Balbis and Ron Brisé also attended the conference. They said they avoided talking more than a few minutes to utility representatives. Brisé said he skipped the evening receptions to avoid lengthy conversations, and when he ran into utility representatives on his way to meetings, he said hello and literally just "kept on going."

"I'm very cognizant of even the appearance of impropriety, so I try to engage as least as possible, and the fact that I was moving toward [meetings] sort of helped," Brisé said.

Balbis said he limited his conversations to greetings and introductions. He said when he ran into Hoffman at the reception, Kelly happened to be nearby. "It was the best timing I could have had," he said. "Everyone is a witness."

Phone calls