FPL Wants to Pay Salary of County Employee in Charge of Approving Its Permits

FPL Wants to Pay Salary of County Employee in Charge of Approving Its Permits
via Florida Power & Light
In South Florida, the regulated monopoly of Florida Power & Light is the only game in town when it comes to keeping your lights on. That means that despite FPL's history of jacking up rates, fighting to store radioactive waste beneath our aquifer, and spending $8 million on a deceitful anti-solar amendment, consumers basically have no other choice but to patronize the utility giant.

That history should give Miami-Dade residents serious pause about a new agreement FPL is about to reach with the county, though.

This morning, county commissioners will vote on a contract that would allow FPL to pay the full salary of the county employee responsible for approving the power company's permits. That's right: FPL is offering the county $70,000 a year to fully fund an employee whose only job would be to review the company's applications for electric projects. The item already sailed through a meeting of the county's Public Works Committee without so much as a sentence of discussion.  

The tentative agreement says the employee would exclusively process FPL's applications for permits "on a priority basis," although he or she would be supervised by the county and considered part of the county's workforce. The rest of the contract, however, raises questions about whether the position would be just a rubber stamp for FPL's projects. If approved, the agreement states the county would designate an experienced employee to process applications "with a goal of permit issuance within 30 days."

FPL says the new employee is necessary to handle an increase in the utility company's "critical electric infrastructure projects," though the agreement doesn't specifically name those projects. FPL spokesman Bill Orlove says the company "plans to increase the number of projects in the county to strengthen the grid and enhance the reliability of service for our customers."

But longtime FPL critics say the deal smells worryingly like a conflict of interest for the county. South Miami Mayor Phil Stoddard, a vocal critic of FPL's nuclear programs, says the employee could face pressure to help FPL so his or her $70,000 contract is renewed every year.

"The question is whether this [employee] is really working for the county or whether the company applying for the permit will indirectly or directly have any influence over the permitting process," Stoddard says.

Orlove did not respond to questions from a New Times reporter asking how FPL will avoid a conflict of interest or whether there is any precedent for FPL funding the salary of a municipal or county permitting employee.

Ben Wilcox, the executive director of Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan ethics watchdog group, says he's unaware of any similar arrangements.

"I don't think that's something that typically happens in local government," Wilcox says. "I'd have concerns about a conflict of interest if someone's salary is being paid to basically expedite permits for one particular business."

Others involved in policing ethics violations were less concerned, though. Joseph Centorino, director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, says the agreement likely won't rise to the level of being unethical as long as the county truly remains in charge of the employee.

"The question would be control, if the county retains complete control over that person's work and assignment," Centorino says. "The county can certainly accept contributions from a contractor or person if it goes to the public good. As long as the county is in control, I don't see it as creating an ethics issue."

According to the terms of the agreement, the position initially would be funded for one year, though FPL may choose to renew the contract on annually. The county also has the leeway not to renew the position at the end of the year.
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb