The recent resignation of Carlisle McLean from the Maine Public Utilities Commission gives Gov. Paul LePage another shot at nominating a regulator more in line with his priorities of lowering power costs and opposing most renewable energy incentives.

The PUC announced June 30 that McLean had resigned. The commission gave no reason and she declined interview requests. In the news release, McLean said she sought to independently consider each decision based on evidence and in the interest of ratepayers.

LePage’s press secretary didn’t respond Monday to questions about a nominee to replace McLean, or a possible timeline. A PUC spokesman said the agency will function normally until the third seat is filled.

McLean’s eventual replacement will come under close scrutiny, because the three PUC commissioners decide cases involving multimillion-dollar power projects, energy efficiency spending and other actions that affect what Mainers pay on their utility bills. Most recently, the PUC has been caught up in a controversy about the right level of financial incentives for homeowners who install solar-electric panels.

Emily Green, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine, said her group is concerned that the governor will nominate someone who will take a hard line against proposals that advance renewable energy.

“We would oppose the nomination of someone who’s unlikely to work toward a clean-energy future,” she said.

Following nomination by the governor, PUC candidates are reviewed by the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Utilities and Energy, a process that includes a public hearing. Candidates approved by the committee are confirmed by the full Senate. They serve for staggered six-year terms.

Rumors had been circulating for weeks in Augusta that McLean was preparing to leave after her term expired at the end of March. LePage had the option of nominating her for a full six-year term. The job currently has an annual salary of $121,971.

McLean was LePage’s chief legal counsel when he nominated her for the PUC post early in 2015. She filled an unplanned vacancy on the three-member panel when Tom Welch, the former chairman, announced he would retire two years before his term expired.

When he nominated McLean, LePage made it clear that he wanted a PUC that focused on affordable energy for all Mainers, “not just for the rich subsidized investors and environmentalists.”

But McLean and her colleagues incurred the governor’s wrath in late January when they voted on a compromise rule that would phase out financial incentives for rooftop solar panels, beginning in 2018. The terms were too generous for LePage, who opposes any incentives for solar. At a news conference two days later, LePage said the trio disregarded his sole request when he appointed them to lower energy costs. He said he’d fire all three if he had the authority.

With his provocative remarks, LePage feeds a perception that the commission is meant to play an advocacy role. However, by law the panel’s mission is to regulate electric, natural gas, telephone and water utilities. It also is charged with ensuring access to safe and reliable services at “just and reasonable” rates.

Although the biases of some commissioners become clear in time, their actions – like those of judges – are bound by law. PUC hearings function like court proceedings, informed by public testimony, questioning and discussion. In some instances, commissioners can subpoena witnesses and records. The commission makes all final decisions by a public vote.

The next PUC commissioner also may play a deciding role in the rooftop solar policy debate, depending on what happens next week in the Legislature.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a solar bill that would effectively put the PUC’s rule on hold, pending a cost-benefit study by the agency. The bill passed by wide margins in both the House and Senate.

On Monday, LePage vetoed the bill, as expected. It remains to be seen if the same level of legislative support is maintained July 20, when lawmakers reconvene. A two-thirds margin will be needed to override the veto.

If the override fails, the Conservation Law Foundation will appeal the PUC rule to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The group is set to file briefs in mid-August, said Green, its staff attorney.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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