JACKSON — Leonard Bentz is leaving the state Public Service Commission to become executive of the South Mississippi Planning and Development District.
The board of the 15-county planning district voted yesterday to hire the Republican Bentz, paying him $150,000 a year.
Bentz, who made $78,000 per year representing the PSC’s Southern District, was chosen from among five finalists. He will have to resign his elected post on the three-member utility commission to accept the job.
Bentz is a former Harrison County deputy sheriff, former PSC utility investigator and a former member of the Mississippi House of Representatives.
Gov. Phil Bryant will appoint a successor.
Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said the governor hasn’t officially been notified of Bentz’s departure and declined to comment on how or when the governor might replace him.
It wasn’t immediately clear when Bentz would resign. He and his spokeswoman did not return phone calls and emails from The Associated Press. The move to appoint Bentz had faced scrutiny in part because his father, Leonard Bentz Sr., is secretary of the planning district’s board. As part of the agreement to hire Bentz, his father agreed to resign, the Clarion-Ledger reported.
During the search, the district’s board altered its qualifications so that it could hire someone without a college degree, which Bentz doesn’t have.
The appointment comes at a crucial time for the power plant that Mississippi Power Co. is building in Kemper County. The total cost of the plant, including an associated mine and pipeline, is currently projected at $4.7 billion. Atlanta-based parent Southern Co. has agreed to shoulder about $1 billion of that cost, and another $1 billion is supposed to be diverted into bonds that customers will repay, but isn’t supposed to include profit for Mississippi Power.
But the Public Service Commission must approve the prudency of Mississippi Power’s spending, and opponents are pushing commissioners to reject as much spending as possible, which could force additional losses onto Southern Co. shareholders.
Bryant has been a supporter of the Kemper plant, testifying in favor of it before the PSC when it was originally approved, lauding it as part of his energy strategy for the state, and signing two bills this year that ratified a rate settlement between Mississippi Power and the PSC.
Any appointee would serve until after the 2015 state elections. Winning re-election could be tricky, though. Many House members from areas served by Mississippi Power voted against the settlement legislation that Bryant signed, betraying concern about being seen to support the Kemper project.
Kemper opponents called on Bryant to appoint someone willing to vote against Kemper.
“We call on Gov. Bryant to appoint a smart, experienced, and courageous commissioner who will make protecting Mississippi ratepayers her absolute priority — even if it means standing up to Mississippi Power,” Mississippi Sierra Club director Louie Miller said in a statement.
The three-member regulatory commission faces some other big decisions in coming months. For example, commissioners are likely to vote in September on whether to allow Entergy Corp. to spin off its transmission system to ITC Holdings Corp.