The California Public Utilities Commission has amended its long-standing mission statement, leaving out the idea of ensuring “reasonable rates” for the water and power used by the public.
The change comes as state utility regulators have been under criminal investigation for potentially improper backchannel dealings with the utility companies they oversee and facing multiple lawsuits alleging they failed to protect the people they serve.
Under a recent revision, the statement now says: “The CPUC regulates services and utilities, protects consumers, safeguards the environment and assures Californians’ access to safe and reliable utility infrastructure and services.”
“Our mission statement is now more concise but our commitment to rates and affordability has not changed,” she wrote in an email. “In fact, we now have a strategic directive on rates and affordability that discusses ensuring that rates are just and reasonable.”
The commission published the strategic directive in August as a way of spelling out its governance policies and practices. The 52-page document addresses how the agency makes decisions and manages safety, compliance and other issues.
The section addressing rates and affordability says the commission “ensures that rates are just and reasonable” and “assures that essential services remain affordable for Californians.”
Critics say the commission decision is worrisome because a mission statement is reflective of any organization’s core beliefs.
“To me it’s unnerving that they would think it’s OK to remove ‘reasonable rates’,” said Rita Benton, co-founder of WRATES, Water Rate Advocates for Transparency, Equity and Sustainability, a Silicon Valley advocacy group established last year to challenge escalating water rates.
“They’re saying statutorily that nothing has changed,” said Benton, who lives in Saratoga, Calif. “But if that’s the case, why the change? It seems like they’re trying to align themselves with investor-owned utilities and not ratepayers.”
Mindy Spatt of the Utility Reform Network or TURN, a Bay Area consumer grouop, said it sounds like the commission is sending consumers the wrong message at the wrong time.
“Rather than drop ‘reasonable rates’ from its mission, the commission should elevate affordability,” she said. “PG&E, Sempra and Edison are living high on the hog with bloated executive pay and high profits while customers suffer under the burden of exorbitant rates.”
The utilities commission was under criminal investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office starting in 2014, when emails were released showing that regulators routinely met privately with utility executives to discuss business that is supposed to be conducted in public.
More recently, the Attorney General’s Office has declined to make public statements about the status of the case — either to the news media, or to the CPUC itself.
The commission also is facing multiple lawsuits alleging it acted to benefit utilities over ratepayers, particularly in regards to the settlement of costs for the failed San Onofre nuclear plant north of Oceanside.