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February 7, 2007

The Electrocution of Ken Schisler

Kevin E. Dayhoff

On January 29 Public Service Commission Chairman Ken Schisler resigned. Appointed just after the Ehrlich administration moved into the second floor of the statehouse, Mr. Schisler decided not to serve the remaining year of his five-year term.

In the past year a war of words of epic proportions has raged over a market spike in the cost of electricity just after the rate cap inconveniently came off in an election year.

Many understood Mr. Schisler's resignation as the honorable thing to do - if not pragmatic or even strategic. It is nevertheless a dark day for Maryland.

Before the dawn of 2006 most Marylanders had never heard of the Public Service Commission or its role in electric rates as esoteric if not outright enigmatic. Gov. Martin O'Malley's campaign for the state's highest office made the manufactured concept of some shadowy cabal of regulators exacting feudal tribute out of the working class in return for the ability to turn on the lights a cornerstone of his election campaign.

It was classic class warfare. A greedy mega-giant corporation was taking food off your table in order to amass a fortune and, of course, it was those Republicans, personified by a sitting Republican governor, running for re-election, which was the face of money-grubbing evildoers.

Better yet, the Maryland General Assembly and Maryland's Democratic leadership, aided and abetted by its sycophant media mouthpiece, The (Baltimore) Sun, had an even better face for the resulting 72 percent increase in electricity: Public Service Commission Chairman Ken Schisler.

Instead of accepting responsibility for well-intentioned legislation that went horribly wrong, the General Assembly opted to place the blame on a convenient scapegoat.

Who better to blame than the Public Service Commission chairman? Hardly anyone knew who he was or what his job entailed, so the situation was ripe for turning the man and the job into whatever light was convenient and politically expedient.

On paper, Mr. Schisler was actually an unlikely candidate to be sacrificed. He represented Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico counties; in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1991 to 2003, made no waves and, if anything, was rather well liked on both sides of the aisle.

Indeed, in what could be considered high praise, The Sun's David Nitkin wrote on March 2006 that "the former delegate from the Eastern Shore has suddenly become far more visible - and a much bigger target - than he was as a young backbencher known for his affable demeanor and conservative views."

But actually, many understand the malevolent campaign against Chairman Schisler began several years ago, when he fired five high-ranking Public Service Commission employees. A firestorm ensued, fed by the legislature's latent anger that a Republican had moved into the statehouse.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Brian E. Frosh (D., Montgomery) immediately claimed that the chairman violated state law. It was a position which Senator Frosh and Maryland Democratic Party leaders never changed. As late as last May, The Gazette reported, Chairman Schisler "spent three hours Thursday defending his firing of five top PSC employees to the legislative committee investigating the Ehrlich administration's personnel practices."

Back in April 2004, The Gazette wrote that Senate President Thomas V. (Mike) Miller, Jr., of Chesapeake Beach, "blasted the way Schisler fired the employees."

"These honest, hardworking state employees were reduced to the level of Russian serfs serving at the will of a dictator," Miller said. The Gazette added that Senator Miller was upset "because they were handed their pink slips and escorted from the building by armed guards."

"What was done reeks of right-wing Capitol Hill politics carried out by the people who ran Bob Ehrlich's congressional office and his campaign," Miller said. "It was heavy-handed. It smacks of Watergate and Archibald Cox."

The Senate president expressed his frustration with Mr. Schisler, whom he called a "young waterman from the Eastern Shore who I watched grow up in the House of Delegates, go to law school and graduate. Firing five people with a great deal of institutional memory on some of the most complex issues in state government is absolutely wrong," he said. "It's wrong for the taxpayers. It's wrong for the consuming public."

The die was cast. Fast-forwarding to 2006, once Mr. Schisler was labeled as the villain, the next thing to do was facilitate a mob-mentality and get his bald-headed face on as many news stories as possible. After all, doesn't he look like a classic villain out of a James Bond movie? The only thing missing was a picture of him petting a black cat.

What followed will be a classic moment in Maryland history that should be studied for eons. A full court press was begun in order to fabricate that it was all Chairman Schisler's fault.

The response last year to the unpredicted escalation in the cost of electricity had nothing to do with what was in the best interests of the citizens of Maryland and everything to do with electing a Democrat governor in the State of Maryland.

It worked. Never mind that it was a complete synthetic fabrication. It worked.

To put a cap on this Kabuki morality play, Governor O'Malley's spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese, greeted Mr. Schisler's resignation by pouring salt in the wound and further promoting the prevarications by announcing:

''We are thankful that Mr. Schisler stepped aside, allowing the Public Service Commission to move forward. Now, the work of rebuilding Maryland's regulatory framework begins in earnest. There is no time to waste getting professional regulators back on the job - to protect consumers and restore stability for businesses."

On other words, with Ken Schisler gone, everything is now right with the world.

Well, hardly. Many who understand the 1999 electric deregulation legislation, economics and market forces are dumbstruck. What will they do next? Regulate the cost of oil in Saudi Arabia?

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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