Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday appointed a staunch consumer advocate and a law school professor to a powerful state commission that regulates California’s utilities—a panel that has come under intense criticism in the wake of last year’s fatal pipeline explosion in San Bruno.
Brown picked Mike Florio and Catherine Sandoval to fill two of three open seats on the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees utilities that provide electricity, natural gas and water. The five-member panel also regulates railroads and telecommunications companies.
Until his appointment, Florio served as senior attorney at The Utility Reform Network, a consumer watchdog group that has been fiercely critical of the utilities, in particular Pacific Gas and Electric Co. TURN often urges the commission to reject PG&E’s requests for rate hikes, usually without success.
Sandoval’s expertise, meanwhile, lies in telecommunications law and regulation. A former Federal Communications Commission official, she is now an associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.
Florio’s appointment carries great significance for critics of PG&E, and of the commission. The Sept. 9 explosion of a PG&E pipeline triggered charges that the commission had grown lax in its oversight of the utility, failing to ensure the safety of the company’s vast natural gas transmission network. The commission, which lost one of its own staff members in the blast, has created an independent panel to look for problems within PG&E—and the commission itself—that could have led to the explosion.
State Assemblyman Jerry Hill, who represents San Bruno, applauded the appointments, saying he wanted a change in the commission’s attitude.
“In the aftermath of the deadly gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, it is my hope that they will provide the crucial oversight that is needed to end a culture of complacency on the commission,” Hill said. The explosion killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.
Hill had also urged Brown to pick a new president for the commission to replace Michael Peevey. But a spokesman for the governor on Tuesday said Peevey would stay in that position. Peevey’s term expires in 2014.
“Mr. Peevey’s president now, and we expect him to continue serving as president,” said spokesman Evan Westrup.
TURN’s executive director, Mark Toney, said he was thrilled to have Florio on the panel.
“I think he’ll bring a fair balance to the commission, balancing what the utilities need to be successful and safe but doing that in a cost-effective manner,” Toney said. He also praised Sandoval.
“She has a really deep background on telecommunications, and she has a strong belief in regulation and a commitment to consumer protection,” Toney said.
They were among four people Brown appointed Tuesday to key jobs in energy regulation. The governor also picked Carla Peterman and Robert Weisenmiller to serve on the California Energy Commission, which sets many long-term energy policies and approves the construction of new power plants.
Like Florio, Peterman has a link to TURN, serving on the consumer group’s board of directors. A Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley, she has conducted extensive research on the solar power market.
Weisenmiller, who co-founded the MRW & Associates energy consulting firm in Oakland, already served one year on the Energy Commission. His first appointment, however, was never confirmed by the state Senate and expired earlier this month.
All of the appointments Brown made Tuesday, to the utilities and energy commissions, require Senate approval. Each appointee will make $128,109 per year. The utilities commissioners are appointed to six-year terms, while the term of each energy commissioner lasts five years.
“He has an understanding of the markets, the regulations—he knows it all,” said Stephanie McCorkle, director of communications for the California Independent System Operator. “He’s so personable, and he can delve into really complex issues and talk about them with anyone.”
The utilities commission, which holds its next meeting Thursday, has yet to vote on PG&E’s latest request to raise revenue. The utility, based in San Francisco, initially wanted to increase the amount of money it collects from its customers by $4 billion in the next three years. But under an agreement negotiated with TURN last fall, the company would receive $1.73 billion instead.
“PG&E congratulates Mr. Florio and Ms. Sandoval to their appointments to the California Public Utilities Commission and looks forward to working with them in their new roles as members of this important regulatory body,” said company spokesman Blair Jones.
This article appeared on page A—1 of the San Francisco Chronicle