A group seeking to intervene in a rate case filed by Florida Power and Light (FPL) is refusing to disclose its donors and late last week took steps to shield its member list from public view. The group, calling itself Floridians Against Increased Rates (FAIR), was founded by lobbyist and former Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) board member Michael Hightower.
The Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates Florida’s utilities, will decide the outcome of the FPL rate case. As part of that process, FAIR initially submitted a list of over 500 members, many of which they claim are FPL customers who allegedly oppose any increase in rates. But FAIR blocked an attempt to verify their membership list by filing a motion last week to shield the names and other information about the group. The PSC will now have to consider that motion before the public can learn the names of group’s members.
FAIR says the group membership has now swelled to 756 members as of July 22nd, but not a single member can be independently verified without public disclosure of the names.
Meanwhile, the separate question of who is bankrolling the group’s campaign also remains unanswered.
Most information submitted to the Public Service Commission is considered a matter of public record under Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine laws, which only allow narrow exceptions to shield certain information from public disclosure, such as proprietary business information that a competitor could exploit to gain an unfair advantage.
The Capitolist last week formally submitted public records requests to both the PSC and the Office of Public Counsel, which officially and statutorily represents the customers of Florida’s utilities in matters before the PSC. Those requests sought the membership names already submitted to PSC, but did not include a request for donor information, which FAIR has refused to disclose.
Richard Gentry, who leads Florida’s Office of Public Counsel, said last week that he was prepared to grant The Capitolist’s public records request, but was waiting for the Public Service Commission to rule on FAIR’s motion seeking to block the release and shield their information from the public.
Hightower, as a former member of the JEA board, was frequently subject to the state’s public records requirements which strongly favor transparency over shielding records from public view.
But Hightower said through a spokesman that FAIR’s members joined by signing a membership application and that FAIR pledged not to share their names and addresses except as required in governmental proceedings to prove the group’s standing in the FPL rate case and other proceedings before the commission.
“In keeping our commitment to our members, we have filed the appropriate request for confidential treatment of our membership roster with the PSC,” Hightower said. “That request remains pending, but the information is protected from disclosure under the Public Records Act.”
Hightower is not a current FPL customer, but he says he formed FAIR because of his “professional and personal interests in energy and utility issues.” During an initial call last week with The Capitolist, Hightower initially stressed FAIR’s commitment to transparency, but when asked about FAIR’s financial backers, he again declined to identify the group’s donors.
“From my experience with various advocacy organizations that work in the state policy arena, I believe it’s pretty common practice for policy groups to NOT disclose donors,” Hightower said. “Do any of the other organizations intervening in this case disclose their financials? My guess is that they do not, so we would be a bit of an outlier if we did.”