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.

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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.

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Sara Hossaini contributed to this report.

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