Prospective CPUC Head Dismisses PG&E Concerns, Says Too Much Bay Area Focus

The PG&E logo is displayed on a hard hat at a work site. ((Justin Sullivan/Getty Images))

Michael Picker, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to become the new president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told KQED he is not concerned about the close ties the agency has had with PG&E.

He also said he thinks the large regulatory agency is too focused on the Bay Area.

Picker, whose appointment will become effective at the beginning of the new year, said he wants the agency to more aggressively investigate safety violations and evolve into a stronger and faster enforcer of rules governing the state’s energy and transportation industries.

But when it comes to the criticism that dogged his predecessor — detractors have criticized the CPUC for having a cozy relationship with PG&E — Picker said he is not worried. His remarks stunned a local state senator, a consumer advocacy group and two experts who follow state politics and government.

The outgoing CPUC president, Michael Peevey, came under fire after emails showed improper ties between the commission and the utility company it regulates. Those emails showed Peevey and PG&E executives privately discussed regulatory matters in the years after the deadly PG&E natural gas transmission line explosion in San Bruno in September 2010.

PG&E recently announced that it was releasing 65,000 emails between the company and the commission, including a dozen email chains that executives believe may have been in violation of the CPUC’s rules on ex parte communications.

“I’m not concerned because I don’t do that stuff,” Picker said. “If there’s a prohibition on having a conversation with somebody about something that’s on our agenda or in a proceeding, I’m not going to talk about it.”

In an interview, Picker emphasized that the scrutiny and criticism of his agency’s ties to PG&E are not as important outside the Bay Area.

“I live in Sacramento and I commute to work,” Picker said. “A lot of the Bay Area focus on this tends to pass me by because in Sacramento we have other concerns.”

“Talking to my neighbors, they’re much more worried about how will we know when our gas pipelines are safe and a lot less about the back and forth in the Bay Area.”

When asked whether the commission would have a different relationship with PG&E, Picker said, “I can’t say the organization is really going to change because I don’t think the organization generally had those kinds of communications. Nor do I detect they currently are.”

Those comments surprised state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), a critic of PG&E who represents San Bruno and who called for Peevey’s ouster.

“I was shocked to hear that Mr. Picker did not feel that there was a cozy relationship that existed with PG&E and the PUC,” Hill said. “Certainly the governor recognized the problem, and that’s why I believe he picked Mr. Picker for the position for president. And certainly everyone else recognized the conflict as well.”

Still, Hill said he thought Brown made the right choice in Picker and applauded the new CPUC president for his focus on safety, enforcement and transparency.

Picker’s remarks about his agency’s dealings with PG&E “were stunning in how politically tone deaf they were about how PG&E essentially owned members of the PUC and many of its top political advisors,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University professor of political science who specializes in state politics.

“I wish he would have been more open and forthcoming,” said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who focuses on governance issues.

Picker’s comments also struck a nerve with the local consumer advocacy group, The Utility Reform Network (TURN), which was not happy that Picker, who’s been on the commission since January, did not speak up in recent weeks to denounce ties between the agency and PG&E.

“In the last couple of CPUC meetings, many were stunned that not only did Peevey fail to address recent revelations of back-room deals, but none of the other commissioners did either,” TURN spokeswoman Mindy Spatt said.

“While everyone from the governor on down seems unwilling to acknowledge the public’s concerns about corruption, those concerns are very real, bread-and-butter issues,” Spatt said.

Picker told KQED that he feels the CPUC spends too much time on issues local to the Bay Area, including a focus on the emerging ride-service industry that has taken business away from the region’s cab companies.

The commission has required Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar to provide increased auto insurance coverage for their drivers.

“I will just remind you guys, the PUC is a statewide organization. So while people in San Francisco have a particular relationship with this new industry, we have to regulate it from a statewide perspective,” Picker said.

“We’re not a neighborhood regulatory agency,” he said. “We also have to listen to what’s taking place in other parts of the state.”

The chair of the Senate’s Committee on Utilities and Communication, state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego), backs Picker and likes that he wants the agency to look more at issues that affect Californians outside the Bay Area.

“Mr. Picker’s extensive knowledge and deep concern for the well-being of Californians gives me lots of hope that through his new role as president, the considerable powers of the Public Utilities Commission will be focused on serving the public’s best interests,” Hueso said in a statement to KQED.

“I also look forward to working with the governor to ensure that the PUC is more geographically representative of the entire state of California,” Hueso said. “Southern California deserves its equitable share of representation. We cannot dismiss the value that diversity brings to representative government.”

When Brown’s office announced Picker’s appointment, the governor said, “Picker’s deep experience and sound judgment make him uniquely qualified to take on this role.”

In the interview, Picker noted the vast challenges before him in leading such a large agency.

“I think the PUC is really like a giant battleship, so I don’t think that anyone can really move it too quickly or shape direction unilaterally,” he said.

“We do more than any other public utilities commission in the country,” Picker said. “We cover more industries. The industries are changing faster in California than they are any place else in the country.”

Picker’s appointment as president is effective as of Jan. 1. The Senate will have to confirm his appointment for it to be official. The next commission meeting is Jan. 15.

Sara Hossaini contributed to this report.

Prospective CPUC Head Dismisses PG&E Concerns, Says Too Much Bay Area Focus 30 December,2014Ted Goldberg

  • concerned-ratepayer

    Mr. Picker,

    As the appointed president, it would be far more forthright for you to say: At the commission “We cover for industries”…

    In the face of mounting evidence of violations, for you to turn a blind eye to the actions of your predecessor and another fellow commissioner is absolutely pathetic. Hopefully the Senate will show that it recognizes the desperate need for reform at the CPUC, and express that to you in the next few weeks.

  • Mark Murray

    You have to realize that Michael Picker is the master of what I can only describe as the Dead Pan Ass Kicking. That’s what I heard in this interview. Over the last two decades in dozens of situations with all kinds of seemingly powerful interest groups, I have had the opportunity to watch Michael run circles around and totally dominate the bad guys without ever raising his voice or resorting to hyperbole. Michael is one of the smartest, most strategic thinkers I know. If PG&E or anyone with issues before the PUC thinks that Picker is going to be ‘business as usual’ they are in for a surprise. For those of us living in the Valley, we have Michael Picker (and Lloyd Connelly) to thank for the fact that our lungs no longer have to endure open field rice hull burning.

  • Lauren Steiner

    Surprising that Picker doesn’t think there were “those kind of communications” when the emails demonstrating such were published and his predecessor was forced to resign over them. Also, to reduce a cozy relationship between the regulator and the regulated industry as “back and forth in the Bay Area” is stunningly dismissive of the phenomenon known as regulatory capture that plague most of our regulatory agencies on all governmental levels. If Mr. Picker says he doesn’t engage in those kinds of communications, would he voluntarily release his own emails with representatives of industry? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • Furthermore

    Mr. Picker has a very cozy relationship with himself. He had better not let his large ego ignore the concerns of millions of Californians. Its his job to make sure the monopolies run by the utility companies do not endanger the health and well-being of its residents. He worries me as he does not seem to listen to or address the concerns of Californians. For example there are millions who fear the effects of the non-piloted or pre tested smart meter system in this state. He can hope the meters are truly safe but until there is some long term data to prove their safety, I feel awful that Mr. Picker defends them with a degree of righteousness. There are so many who are suffering health issues from this relatively young technology. Why won’t he address these people’s concerns? Being dismissive to people’s suffering is disgusting. Being sharp and efficient only exacerbates nastiness.

Author

Ted Goldberg

Ted Goldberg is the morning editor for KQED News. His beat areas include San Francisco politics, the city's fire department and the Bay Area's refineries.

Prior to joining KQED in 2014, Ted worked at CBS News and WCBS AM in New York and Bay City News and KCBS Radio in San Francisco. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1998.

You can follow him at @TedrickG and reach him on email at tgoldberg@kqed.org

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