CPUC loses activist edge as Sandoval, Florio depart

16 December 2016 by Steve Blum
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The California Public Utilities Commission lost its most consistently activist members yesterday. Commissioners Catherine Sandoval and Mike Florio announced that they would be leaving when their terms expire at the end of the month. Both were appointed six years ago as governor Jerry Brown took office. Brown did not reappoint them to a second term, though.

Sandoval is the acknowledged telecoms expert among commissioners. She teaches telecoms law at Santa Clara University and was a staffer at the Federal Commission. At one point, she was in the running – albeit as a long shot – for the FCC chair job that ultimately went to Tom Wheeler (who also announced he was stepping down yesterday).

Florio and Sandoval advocated for greater competition in California’s telecoms market and supported efforts to extend broadband connectivity into rural and low income communities. They’ve been more willing than most to buck pressure from AT&T, Verizon and cable lobbyists and, among other things, push for investigations into service and infrastructure issues that the incumbents would prefer to sweep under the carpet, and resist Comcast’s attempts to turn California into its own walled garden.

There have been times when they’ve landed on the losing end of key 3-to-2 commission votes, such as the yes we will, no we won’t endorsement fiasco surrounding common carrier status for broadband, and this summer’s attempt to hold telcos to higher disclosure standards regarding service outages. In her final, major decision yesterday, Sandoval won back some of that ground when Florio and commission president Michael Picker joined in voting yes on new outage reporting requirements that resulted from her investigation into rural telecoms reliability problems.

But more often, Florio and Sandoval have convinced one or more of their colleagues to join them in taking an activist approach to reining in the monopolist impulses of telephone and cable companies, and other public utilities. That success earned them the enmity of companies with deep pocketed lobbyists in Sacramento. Even if Brown had reappointed them, the odds were against them getting enough votes in the California senate to win confirmation.

Sandoval said she’s returning to her previous full time job as a tenured law professor at Santa Clara University, and will extend her portfolio beyond telecoms to other aspects of public utility law. Florio doesn’t have any firm plans, but won’t be end his long career as a utility regulator and consumer advocate. He promised, in his best Terminator style, “no matter when it is or in what capacity, I’ll be back“.