Strong evidence shows several arms of California government are in urgent need of major ethical fixes, beginning with the Public Utilities Commission, the Energy Commission and the Coastal Commission, to name just three powerful agencies.
But even the smallest and most obvious reforms are consistently met with vetoes, legislative detours and other obfuscation despite the pious rhetoric of powerful politicians from Gov. Jerry Brown down to backbenchers in the Legislature.
The pattern began last year, when Brown vetoed a batch of proposed changes for the PUC, including creating an inspector general for the almost untouchable agency that oversees electric and natural gas safety and prices. Brown nixed a ban on private contacts between PUC commissioners and executives of the big utility companies they regulate, while often acting like rubber stamps. These are known as “ex-parte” communications.
The drive for a ban on ex-parte’s for the PUC followed revelations of a secret deal between a former PUC president (now under criminal investigation) and officials of the Southern California Edison Co. that stuck consumers with the bulk of costs for shutting down the San Onofre Nuclear Power Station. There were also private contacts between PUC commissioners and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on both rates and the consequences of the fatal 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.
This year, legislators proposed a similar ban on ex-parte communications by the Coastal Commission, which rules on virtually all development along the state’s scenic coastline. This came after several commissioners admitted having secret meetings, emails and phone calls with developers on whose projects they were to vote.
For months, passage of a ban seemed assured; it easily cleared the state Senate. If passed, the bill by Democratic state Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara would prohibit ex-parte communications between commissioners and anyone else with a financial stake in agency business.
This would be a nice start, many consumers believe, with similar bans also needed for many other state boards and commissions. So far, not one such ban has been accepted by Brown, whose signature is needed to make legislation into law.
Now the Coastal Commission ex-parte ban has run afoul of an analysis by the state Natural Resources Agency that found the commission would need six new employees at a yearly cost of about $150,000 each. That department — under Brown’s direct authority — also backed the contention by some commissioners that ex-parte communications help greatly in their work.
Two facts are relevant here: One is that the expense ($900,000) for six new employees who would presumably police their bosses is a fraction of the building cost for just one typical new coastal home. It’s a pittance for keeping commissioners honest and fair. The other fact is that wealthy coastal developers can hire lobbyists and other spokesmen whose fees are usually beyond the means of conservationists. That’s why most Coastal Commission ex-parte communications are one-sided renditions of property owner interests.
Nevertheless, allegedly because of its financial impact, Jackson’s bill has been sidetracked into the state Assembly’s suspense file, which usually delays votes on proposed laws by about a year. If this bill isn’t resurrected by Thursday evening, it can’t be reintroduced until next year. Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lawndale, sponsor of last year’s vetoed PUC reforms, refused to say whether he will try to break it loose.
Meanwhile, there’s no prospect for an ex-parte communications ban for any other agency. A package of PUC changes agreed to by Brown and key legislators would require commissioners to reveal quickly the contents of any such contacts. But there are no significant penalties for anyone who doesn’t comply.
There’s no effort to impose even that much on the Energy Commission or other panels.
All of which means it will likely be business as usual in California government for at least another year, despite rhetoric from Rendon and other legislators who have advocated ex-parte and other reforms to prevent regulators from favoring the very interests they’re supposed to rein in.
Coming almost two years after revelations of the extent and consequences of PUC ex-parte communications, this raises major questions about politicians who talk a good game on this but may not really mean it.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.