Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown appoints two top aides to Public Utilities Commission

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday announced the appointment of two top aides to the influential Public Utilities Commission as the panel faces significant changes.

Brown appointed Martha Guzman Aceves, 39, and Clifford Rechtschaffen, 59, to replace Michael Florio, a consumer advocate, and Catherine Sandoval, a law school professor. Six-year terms for Florio and Sandoval end next month.

The incoming members, both Democrats, will earn $142,095 a year as commissioners.

The Democratic governor’s move comes three months after he approved legislation designed to improve governance and transparency at the commission. Brown at the time urged the powerful regulator to make further changes that had fallen short in the state Legislature.

And, despite resisting earlier calls for changes, Brown also promised to work with the commission on far-reaching structural changes, including a shift of transportation responsibilities to departments within the California Transportation Agency.

Problems involving the commission in recent years prompted state lawmakers to call for changes, but they have had little success with the legislation. The criticism has run from the PUC’s response to a large gas leak in Southern California to the removal of its former leader after revelations of back-channel dealings related to a deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion. This fall, a scathing audit determined that the regulator exerted lax control over its own spending, failed to disclose public records and allowed its board members to travel at the expense of a nonprofit organization with close ties to the companies it monitors.

Appointed alongside each other in 2011, Sandoval taught mass communications and antitrust law at Santa Clara University law school and had worked at the Federal Communications Commission after attending Stanford, Oxford and Yale. Florio was a well-known consumer advocate, having served as the senior attorney for The Utility Reform Network since the late 1970s.

They will be replaced by Guzman Aceves and Rechtschaffen.

Guzman Aceves, Brown’s longtime deputy legislative affairs secretary, has worked on natural resources, environmental protection, energy and food and agriculture policies. A Sacramento resident with a graduate degree from UC Davis, Guzman Aceves was the legislative coordinator for United Farm Workers from 1999 to 2005.

Rechtschaffen, a senior adviser to the governor, focused on climate, energy and environmental issues, and had served as acting director of the California Department of Conservation after working as a special assistant attorney general in the California Department of Justice from 2007 to 2010.

His appointment piqued Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, whose president, Jamie Court, accused Rechtschaffen of caving to the oil industry.

Court pointed to a sworn declaration by Derek Chernow, former acting director of the Department of Conservation, stating that in late 2011 Rechtschaffen urged regulators to fast-track approval of new oilfield permits. After being told that the proposal violated the Safe Drinking Water Act, and that the EPA agreed, Chernow said in the court statement, Rechtschaffen allegedly replied “this was an order from Gov. Brown and must be followed.”

Chernow and Elena Miller, former head of the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, were fired.

In a statement, Court called Rechtschaffen “another oil industry loyalist who did the industry’s wet work in firing tough oil well regulators.” The Brown administration has dismissed the claim as baseless.

Added Brown spokesman Evan Westrup on Wednesday: “This drivel does not merit a response.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago