Taking the Public Out of the Public Utilities Commission

We know about Governor Jerry Brown's utility friends and the top staffers he handpicked from their ranks. We know about his protection of the secretive Public Utilities Commission (PUC) by vetoing reform bills. We know about the PUC’s protection of Brown himself in refusing to release more than 60 emails that might link him to the commission’s utility-brokered deal to put billions  on the backs of ratepayers to shut down a defective nuclear power plant.  
What we didn't know is how much Governor Brown disdains the idea of protecting the public by giving it a real voice.
The Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA) at the PUC exists to make sure ratepayers get the best possible deal. It’s the only such agency in California. It turns out that Governor Brown hasn’t bothered to appoint a Director to that office for more than five years. 
Interim Director Joe Como's imminent retirement allows him to speak out. He says a permanent, appointed director gives the office more credibility. The ORA is the public advocate within the PUC, and a check and balance in the system that makes sure utilities are living up to their obligations. Under Brown, the office sports a vacancy for every seven jobs, and doesn’t even have its own chief counsel. It ends up using lawyers who work for other branches of the commission that don’t necessarily have the public interest in mind.
As the ORA has been allowed to drift, it has also succumbed to backchannel communications with the utilities it is supposed to watchdog. In a lawsuit between the City of San Bruno and PG&E over a pipeline disaster, more than 2,000 emails became public between the ORA’s program manager and a PG&E executive who regularly took bike rides together and talked shop. One female staffer told KQED that the emails objectify women and are contemptuous of the ORA’s mission.
Public interest groups are the other voice for the public before the PUC. Groups must hire their own experts and attorneys if they hope to compete with the legions of lawyers the utilities bring to bear. To ensure groups can hire their own expertise, the PUC has an intervenor process that is supposed to compensate groups who make a substantial contribution to these proceedings. In practice, the PUC has the reputation of only approving compensation for those outside experts that agree with them.  
This summer, Consumer Watchdog tried to intervene in a proceeding before the PUC to protect PG&E ratepayers against a misguided and costly attempt by PG&E to win a monopoly from the PUC on electric car charging. The administrative law judges (ALJs) in the case, however, rejected Consumer Watchdog's application to seek intervenor compensation on the basis that Consumer Watchdog’s articles of incorporation do not mention PUC intervention and litigation.
This requirement is nowhere in the law or guidelines, and has never been required of past intervenors. And it is belied by the fact that Consumer Watchdog has intervened in dozens of proceedings before state agencies in the past, including the PUC. Consumer Watchdog sought reconsideration, but three months later the ALJs have refused to rule. In a letter, Consumer Watchdog asked PUC Chair Michael Picker to step in and require the ALJs to end the delay and rule. Picker feigned ignorance.  
In a second letter, Consumer Watchdog wrote that Picker's dithering response was too similar to the actions of his disgraced predecessor. "Mr. Peevey’s troubling tenure was notable for its silencing of ratepayer advocates who were too outspoken for the investor-owned utilities and the Commission itself. He established a standard that favored and only paid intervenors who didn’t aggressively challenge the assumptions of the Commission and the utilities. We had hoped that your tenure would support a more diverse set of voices, more inclusive rules and greater public participation. Your initial response suggests otherwise. …We call upon you to investigate this problem and ensure that the agency acts on Consumer Watchdog's outstanding legal notice and motion." 
Standing in the way of public participation and neglecting the Office of Ratepayer Advocates are but the latest egregious examples of how Governor Brown and his Commission are taking the "Public" out of the Utilities Commission.

Capitol Watchdog is owned and operated by nonprofit Consumer Watchdog. For more information about Consumer Watchdog visit http://www.consumerwatchdog.org