New CPUC president emphasises openness and safety at first meeting

16 January 2015 by Steve Blum

Michael Picker set out his goals for as president of the California Public Utilities Commission yesterday, as he opened the first meeting of his term.

“We regulate the industries that build and maintain the services that are key to our daily lives and prosperity: electricity, natural gas telecommunications, rail and transportation and water”, he said. “Over the years we’ve served the citizens of the State of California by making sure that the utilities who provide those services and build the infrastructure use their economic power – that’s our central reason for being – for our benefit and safety”.

Picker then moved on to the controversy over apparently improper communications between commissioners, staff and regulated utilities, particularly PG&E. He said the allegations are “troubling and very painful to read, but they’re also being very carefully looked at by federal and state investigations in which we’re fully cooperating”.

“It’s an erosion of our core value of fairness”, Picker said. “What I can do as president is make sure that never happens again”.

But improper emails aren’t what keeps him up at night. Instead, “its the slow erosion of our safety program. That’s the thing that truly shakes me on a consistent basis”. Safety issues include, he said, greenhouse gas emissions, which are a “very, very slow moving safety hazard”.

Picker proposed forming committees – made up of commissioners and meeting in public – that would take a greater role in managing the agency and its staff. Other commissioners, including newly appointed Liane Randolph, generally concurred. It’s an idea that was suggested last year by former commissioner Mark Ferron,but received no attention from former president Michael Peevey.

It’s going to be a different commission. Where Peevey was bombastic and domineering, Picker is soft spoken and collegial. Whether a difference in style leads to difference in substance remains to be seen, but Picker at least seems serious about making changes in the way the CPUC is managed – including creating a code of conduct for commissioners – and in shifting its focus more toward public benefits and safety, and away from the more cosy relationship Peevey maintained with utility executives.