Originally created 04/18/99

Column: New PSC appointee comes from the ranks 041899 - The Augusta Chronicle



David Burgess' trip to a seat on the state Public Service Commission was shorter than most. One flight of stairs, to be exact.

The adjustment -- from unknown PSC staffer to one of five PSC members -- is going to take a little longer.

"They called me `David' all the time. Now they say, `should we call you `Commissioner' now?"' Burgess said, laughing about the reaction of his one-time co-workers.

"As long as the proper message is being registered," he tells them, "you can call me what you want."

Actually, the overwhelming reaction of PSC staff members hasn't been awkwardness. It's been celebration.

"It's like it has been a non-stop party since he was appointed. I mean, everybody is in giddy-land," said Terri Lyndall, an Atlanta lawyer and former chief aide to the PSC. "The staff is ecstatic because they feel like one of their own has made it."

Gov. Roy Barnes named Burgess, 40, to the five-member utility-regulating board two weeks ago. He fills the seat left vacant since December, when Republican Dave Baker quit for a job with an Atlanta Internet provider.

BURGESS, THE first black ever on the PSC, will have to run statewide for his own six-year term in 2000.

He has never taken part in any political campaign -- not even licking envelopes -- but Burgess has one heck of a stump speech to give.

A poor kid from the east side of Atlanta, Burgess became a star center-fielder for Decatur's Gordon High School -- good enough to think, briefly, about going pro and good enough to land several scholarship offers.

Instead, he hung up the cleats and took an academic scholarship to Georgia Tech, then joined the PSC staff immediately after graduation.

"I could have gone to a job that makes more money," Burgess said. "The telephone industry is always out there clamoring for bright young people. But I believe in the PSC and it satisfies me more than just bringing home a big paycheck."

For the past two years, Burgess has worked exclusively on telephone issues as the PSC's chief telecommunications expert. But he learned the other side of the shop, electricity and natural gas, while serving for seven years as the commission's director of rates and tariffs.

That experience will come in handy as the PSC puzzles through the fits and starts of natural-gas deregulation. The process was accelerated by a newly enacted state law that will soon require every customer to choose a gas supplier or be assigned one at random.

HIS TELEPHONE expertise, meanwhile, will be tested as the PSC decides how to split up the overcrowded 912 area code, which will outgrow its available combinations of phone numbers by the end of next year.

The Burgess appointment is a sign of the new governor's deftness at escaping political predicaments. A number of current and former Democratic legislators were lobbying for the PSC appointment, but by picking the best-qualified candidate on paper -- and a minority as a bonus -- Barnes silenced any second-guessers.

It might be a gamble to appoint a political newcomer to a position that Republicans will be gunning for next year, but Democratic leaders aren't complaining.

"Some people would say that's an advantage. It's really not a political job," said Rep. Jimmy Skipper, D-Americus, the House Democratic whip, who got to know Burgess while serving as chairman of a House utilities subcommittee.

While the two were working on bills deregulating the telephone and natural-gas industries, Burgess didn't indicate either a liberal or conservative slant, Skipper said. "It was `just the facts, ma'am,"' the lawmaker said.

BURGESS SAYS he'll keep that approach even as an elected official.

"I just basically look where the facts lie," he said. "I think with the technical issues we deal with, it takes a non-partisan person, really. I don't see Republicans ganging up against Democrats or voting as a bloc or anything like that."

Still, Burgess soon could find himself the Democrats' only emissary to the PSC.

Commissioner Lauren "Bubba" McDonald of Commerce, a former Democratic legislator, studiously refused to declare a party during his last campaign, which was managed by a Republican consultant and largely bankrolled by Republican donors.

Although Democrats still claim him as one of theirs, McDonald is expected to make the switch official -- leaving Burgess the sole Democrat -- once his Democratic patron, House Speaker Tom Murphy, is retired.

SNAP JUDGMENTS

-- State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko may have made her peace with the PTA, but obviously the feeling isn't mutual. Schrenko, who became a card-carrying PTA member after she apologized for trashing the organization as liberal, got a frosty chewing-out last week courtesy of State PTA President Cathy Henson. In a letter dated Tuesday, Henson chastised the Republican superintendent for not "following the proper protocol." The offense? Schrenko had the audacity to arrange meetings with parent groups in various cities without getting permission from the PTA. The letter also rebukes the superintendent for scheduling a trip to Columbus next month without including a visit to the PTA's May 14 state convention. (Perhaps a note from her mother would get Schrenko off the hook?)

-- The Barnes administration job-go-round continues to whirl, with Transportation Commissioner Wayne Shackelford the latest reported victim. Administration insiders say the governor is considering a couple of career Department of Transportation officials, Steve Parks and Jim Croy, for the top job. Croy, who is director of the DOT office in Barnes' home Cobb County, also may be tapped as chief of staff to the new Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. Also, Atlanta City Councilman Michael Bond is the leading contender for the job of Community Affairs Commissioner when James Higdon retires, probably next year. And Industry and Trade Commissioner Randy Cardoza, considered a likely holdover from the Miller administration, also has been notified he's being replaced.

Frank LoMonte covers politics in Georgia for Morris News Service.