Editorial: Mitchell flap shows PUC power needs some revision

Published: Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell made the correct decision to step down as mediator overseeing the settlement of the 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno.

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey made the wrong decision earlier this month when he selected Mitchell without first getting the consent of all the parties, most notably the city of San Bruno.

In a statement announcing Mitchell's departure, Peevey described the former U.S. Senate majority leader as "arguably the greatest mediator in the world today." Peevey also noted that "it is regrettable that some of the parties did not appreciate the opportunity we afforded them to work with a man who is a true peacemaker."

No one questions Mitchell's mediation skills. His many accomplishments include brokering the 1998 Northern Ireland peace treaty. But Peevey's statement suggests he was being munificent by selecting Mitchell.

In fact, Peevey was tonally impaired.

What's regrettable is not that the parties failed to appreciate the high honor of having Mitchell mediate the dispute, but rather the way in which his appointment came about.

Peevey stumbled by selecting Mitchell without fully briefing other commissioners and without informing the parties, although PG&E was made aware of the selection. Predictably, San Bruno did not react well to the news and bitterly protested.

If the full California Public Utilities Commission determines that a mediator is needed, the full commission, and not Peevey acting on his own, should get agreement from the parties involved.

The commissioners also should check potential mediators for conflicts of interest. Mitchell is a lawyer at the international law firm of DLA Piper, which has utility clients, a potential conflict.

Then, the full commission should make certain that the parties have the right to object to whomever is selected. Alternatively, the commission, which is steeped in the events leading up to the blast and its horrible impact and aftermath, could step in and resolve the dispute.

Then-Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation in 1999 granting governors the power to select PUC presidents. Previously, the commission itself selected its presidents. The legislation by then-Sen. Steve Peace was intended to give governors more direct control over the commission, among the most important bodies in the state.

PUC presidents have broad power, as the Mitchell misstep showed. As Mitchell leaves with his dignity intact, perhaps lawmakers ought to review the decision to vest such powers in one unelected individual.

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