CPUC needs a smart and aggressive cat

Telling it like it is.

Mark Ferron, a commissioner on the California Public Utilities Commission, recently – and abruptly – announced he was resigning. What had been a very private battle with prostate cancer took a turn for the worse, and he stepped down in order to focus his energy on his health and family. His resignation message is worth reading for his insight on prostate cancer alone. But Ferron also leaves his fellow commissioners with some pointed advice on winning the – also heretofore private – struggle he sees to maintain relevance.

Ferron paints a picture of commissioners pinned by three forces: confrontational utilities, an “inexperienced” legislature and an unaccountable staff. His primary area of responsibility and expertise was energy; he discusses energy policy at length and doesn’t specifically mention telecoms at all. But the problems he highlights are common to all the different privately-owned utilities that commissioners regulate.

I wonder whether some top managers at our utilities have the ability or the will to understand and control the far-flung and complex organizations they oversee…We at the Commission need to watch our utilities’ management and their legal and compliance advisors very, very carefully: it is clear to me that the legalistic, confrontational approach to regulation is alive and well. Their strategy is often: “we will give the Commission only what they explicitly order us to give them”. This is cat and mouse, not partnership, so we have to be one smart and aggressive cat.

The legislature, in Ferron’s view, is similarly antagonistic…

We also have a Legislature that by many measures is very inexperienced, and yet considers itself expert in energy policy matters. Many of the more influential members and veteran staffers seem to display an open, almost knee-jerk hostility toward the CPUC. It’s as if some Legislators (or their staff) think that their reputations will be enhanced by slapping down this Commission’s policy initiatives…The CPUC needs to do a better job of convincing the Legislature that we are not their rivals nor their enemies – but rather their partners.

Finally, Ferron voices frustration with an organisation that he and fellow his fellow commissioners cannot manage…

We Commissioners rightly are held responsible for what happens in this building and yet we do not have any effective means to provide guidance and oversight to the CPUC’s permanent management and staff. My colleagues and I have discussed arranging ourselves similarly to the way that a Board of Directors is organized in Corporate America: we could create sub- committees dedicated to overseeing important internal issues…This arrangement could help give the Commissioners more effective senior-level oversight…and I believe would create a stronger and more effective agency. I do hope that my fellow Commissioners will act on my suggestion after I am gone.

It’s up to governor Brown to name a replacement, who’ll have to be confirmed by the state senate.

H/T to Jim Warner at UCSC for the link – it’s sometimes hard to keep up on California news whilst in New Zealand and I appreciate the help. Not that I’m complaining…