By now, there is little doubt about past corruption at the state’s Public Utilities Commission, repeatedly caught in bed with executives of California’s largest utility companies.
Only a few years ago, the PUC’s conduct was largely ignored, but calls for reform are now common. Where state lawmakers just last summer staged a friendly, rubber-stamp confirmation hearing for the new commission president, some legislators now are hot to break up the PUC.
And why not? Its lax regulation has been at least partly responsible for a steady stream of utility-related disasters ranging from the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion to San Diego County’s massively destructive 2007 Witch Fire, the bilking of electric customers after 2012’s closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and this winter’s huge natural gas leak at a storage facility bordering the Porter Ranch area in Los Angeles.
It’s also clear the commission’s questionable behavior continues. As recently as early February, in a workshop to develop new rules for public access to PUC records, some telephone participants found themselves effectively shut out of the proceeding and unheard by those at the event.
“This is a violation of the right to participate in a public proceeding,” said San Diego consumer lawyer Maria Severson, one of those cut off. “It’s especially egregious because it came in a discussion of the public’s right to get documents under the Public Records Act.” That right has now been affirmed in a decision by a San Francisco judge on a lawsuit filed by Severson and her partner, former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre. The judge called withholding most internal emails “a violation of the Public Records Act.”
Was it an accident that Severson and Aguirre, the PUC’s most active current critics, were shut down in the workshop, headed by PUC President Michael Picker?
The sad reality is that the commission’s behavior – and other suspicious activities and statements by agencies from the state Energy Commission to the state prison system – could not go on without at least tacit approval by Gov. Jerry Brown. The same sort of behavior also was common under recent ex-Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis.
That’s why doubts arise when PUC reform plans suggest breaking up the commission and distributing its functions to new boards appointed by the governor or to existing state departments that answer to him.
Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Los Angeles, author of the most prominent current reform suggestions, says, “I’m not proposing direct control over these things by the governor. The Legislature will have to insist on more input.”
But reality is that until the last few months, few legislators paid attention to the PUC. When the current string of crises recedes from front pages, might they return to their former lethargy, helped along by the blandishments of utility company lobbyists?
Said Gatto, “In my experience, the way things get moving in California is when you get the people and the press and the Legislature all interested at once. You have that now.”
He’s right about the higher-than-ever interest in the PUC, its misdeeds and its long record of negligence in safety issues.
But what’s needed isn’t to restructure the PUC; rather, a healthy house cleaning would do, along with many new rules, including those that passed the Legislature unanimously last year only for Brown to veto them. There should, for example, be no way current Commissioner Mike Florio can keep his job. He’s had to recuse himself from some decisions involving the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., because of his admitted involvement in judge-shopping efforts by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Florio even admitted to “serious mistakes,” but there he sits. How can a commissioner not vote on the agency’s vital cases?
All commissioners who had any part in the disasters and misdeeds surrounding San Bruno, San Onofre and Porter Ranch should be swept out. But there’s no sign of that.
The upshot: Change is needed at the benighted PUC, for sure, but not change that throws the baby out with the bathwater. Get rid of the current commissioners, all of them, and then vet their replacements much more carefully than in the past. Mandate far more transparency.
But the PUC’s current independence is fine; the problems are the people running it and the governor who named them.
Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column.