The California Public Utilities Commission has a long and important history regulating the industries responsible for building and maintaining services that are key to our daily lives and prosperity – electricity, natural gas, telecommunications, rail and water.
Over the years, the PUC has served the state well by making sure that utilities use their economic power for our benefit and safety. Recently, working with other state agencies, the PUC has led the nation in clean energy such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal, and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the electric industry. We have done great things, and I am proud to have recently been appointed president of the PUC by Gov. Jerry Brown.
But the PUC has also faced real crises in the last few years, from the tragic Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pipeline explosion in San Bruno that led to the discovery that our safety oversight was severely lacking, to the diminishing public trust in our ability to fairly regulate. This has been most glaringly demonstrated in the news reports regarding certain PUC email communications with utilities.
It’s troubling and very painful, but we have taken a number of steps to make sure nothing like that happens again.
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We’ve employed an outside expert to review and help enforce internal ex parte rules and to help us utilize best practices when it comes to communicating with parties. We have also banned PG&E from ex parte communications.
Taking our efforts toward transparency a step further, we implemented new reporting procedures for communications between certain PUC staff and PUC-regulated entities. Such contacts are now reported weekly online.
And this week, an administrative law judge issued a ruling requiring PG&E to disclose approximately 65,000 emails, dating to 2010, which were exchanged between the utility and the PUC .
I plan to move the PUC forward with openness and transparency. The way I work is that if there is a prohibition on having a conversation with somebody, I don’t have it. I give all parties a fair and equal opportunity to help us set policies, and I expect the same of my fellow commissioners, and I know they agree.
Rebuilding the PUC into an organization that is more fair, open, accessible and effective must start at the top. I have asked my fellow commissioners to join me in taking on a more hands-on role in the governance of the PUC. In this vein, commissioners will form committees that will regularly meet in public to discuss how we can build capabilities and improve competencies. We’ll also develop a commissioner code of conduct that covers many ex parte communications with regulated utilities.
There are also organizational issues that deserve commissioners’ attention. Safety is a top priority, and we need to strengthen and improve our safety and enforcement programs. We have made many improvements thus far, but we have a ways to go and many things to do in order to assure Californians that we are working every day for the safest possible utilities.
After serving as a commissioner last year and seeing that the PUC has a lot of talented and dedicated people who are trying hard to do their jobs well, I realized that I couldn’t quit without trying harder to match their commitment. I asked the governor to appoint me president because I want to make the PUC as good as the people who work here.
I am confident that working together and making real changes in how we do business will result in a stronger PUC that robustly serves the interests of the people of California and helps us improve safety in all the industries we regulate.
Michael Picker is president of the California Public Utilities Commission and presides over his first voting meeting Thursday .
For more columns from national writers, go to sacbee.com/opinion/op-ed
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