The Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight voted unanimously on Tuesday to appoint Richard Gentry to head the Office of Public Counsel (OPC).
The legislative panel, made up of House and Senate members, voted today to officially fill the vacancy left at OPC by J.R. Kelly, who elected not to reapply for the position after serving in the job since 2007. Gentry, who spent nearly 25 years as general counsel of the homebuilders’ group, was the lone entrant left in the process after three applicants withdrew before the bipartisan committee began interviews.
Gentry will now head the legal office, created to represent consumers in the Sunshine State involving utility-related matters.
“It is a significant responsibility for a number of reasons, including the big shoes left to fill by the outgoing Public Counsel J.R. Kelley, who served the state most ably for 15 years,” Gentry told the members of the committee. “Furthermore, there’s a host of important utility issues that are likely to directly involve the Public Counsel, both near-term and in the coming years.”
Gentry, a longtime lobbyist, first made his pitch to the bipartisan body last Thursday, after the only other candidate, Michael Barry, withdrew to accept a different job hours before the scheduled hearing. During the penultimate hearing, Gentry pointed to his background, citing his extensive career inside the public and private sectors, and representing groups like the Florida Home Builders Association (FHBA) and the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR).
“I have over 40 years experience, both inside of state government and representing clients before both local and state government. I’ve advocated before state and federal judges, governors, powerful members of legislatures, and an array of interest groups to advance the interest of my client,” he continued.
Despite being the only interviewee, Gentry fielded questions from Republican and Democratic lawmakers last week who inquired about his qualifications and desire to serve as the watchdog to safeguard Floridians from electric companies. State Senator Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat, cleared up Gentry’s purview over local government entities and encouraged Gentry to use the legislature as a tool to ensure that he’s adequately representing the public’s interest.
“Can we expect from you and invite you to come back here and tell us if you need more authority? Or if there are issues or if you’re having limitations?” Pizzo asked during the hearing. “Will you commit to coming back to us and being transparent and candid about tools we can give you?”
Gentry agreed, saying he would openly seek the legislature’s help if he is selected to lead the OPC.
“Absolutely. I recognize that this position is a creature of the legislature,” Gentry told Pizzo. “While the ratepayers of Florida are my boss, you certainly have an interest in it, and I would be absolutely committed to that.”
Following that hearing, lawmakers agreed to reconvene today to officially bring Gentry’s application to a vote.
Gentry says he embraces the difficult task and is excited to give back to the state he’s called home for most of his life.
“At this point in my career, I really felt like maybe it was time to give something back,” Gentry told The Capitolist following today’s vote. “I’ve done so many different things, and I have good clients now, but I don’t think it’s going to be as satisfying as it is to represent all these good people in Florida.”
Gentry will officially take over at OPC on March 1st.