CEO Leaves Under A Cloud

TURN to protest ratepayer funding of PG&E CEO’s golden parachute.

Seven months after the deadly San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. announced that Chairman and CEO Peter Darbee will step down.

Darbee’s abrupt retirement comes as the San Francisco-based utility giant is facing state and federal investigations into the Sept. 9, 2010, disaster, which killed eight people and flattened dozens of homes.

"Peter concluded that a change in leadership would create the best opportunity for PG&E to move ahead after a challenging year," said longtime board member Lee Cox, who will serve as interim chairman and CEO until a successor is found.

Darbee, 58, whose retirement takes effect April 30, has served as CEO since 2005 and earned nearly $8.4 million last year.

According to the company’s proxy, Darbee is entitled to nearly $35 million in retirement and pension benefits.

In addition to the San Bruno blast, Darbee’s tenure has been marked by other controversies, such as the company’s advocacy of Proposition 16 and its handling of a $2.2 billion smart meter program.

Since its 2006 rollout of smart meters, PG&E has faced thousands of complaints from customers blaming the high-tech meters for skyrocketing electric bills.

The company also was heavily criticized for spending $47 million in a losing effort to back Proposition 16. Critics said the ballot measure was aimed at shielding PG&E from competition by requiring public utilities to obtain a two-thirds vote before they could expand.

Mark Toney, executive director of TURN, a San Francisco-based consumer advocacy group, said Darbee’s "lavish" retirement package should be borne by shareholders and not consumers.

"Not one more dime of customers’ money should be spent on rewarding Darbee’s failures," Toney said.

"PG&E not only needs to clean house, it needs to change priorities, and focus spending on safety, reliability and customer service, rather than executive perks and excesses."

Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said that while Darbee’s commitment to PG&E and its stakeholders has been "unquestioned," the company made "several poor and consequential decisions" under his tenure.