Embattled, embroiled and entangled, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is about to get a significant change at the top.
Two of its five commissioners are stepping down after serving their respective six-year terms and Gov. Jerry Brown appointed their replacements on Wednesday.
“Both have sound judgment and a commitment to protecting ratepayers and ensuring safe, reliable and climate-friendly energy in California,” said Brown in a statement.
The moves come as the agency that regulates energy, rail safety, telecommunications and water rates works through a slew of controversies and long-running criticism that its commissioners are too cozy with the utility companies they are charged to oversee.
The new appointees each come from the governor’s office. Guzman Aceves, 39, has been Brown’s deputy legislative affairs secretary since 2011. Rechtschaffen, 59, has been Brown’s senior adviser on climate, energy and environmental issues for the last five years.
“They’re coming into the PUC with some tough challenges,” said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who has reintroduced legislation to reform the commission in the current lawmaking session in Sacramento. “They’ve got their work cut out for them, frankly.”
Among the recent controversies the CPUC is battling:
- a criminal investigation that has gone on for more than two years by the state attorney general’s office after emails appeared to show utility regulators favoring Pacific Gas & Electric in an examination of the 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people
- disclosures published in the Union-Tribune of a secret “ex parte” meeting between a California Edison executive and then-CPUC President Michael Peevey about a settlement in the shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
- a 64-page report from the state auditor concluding the agency’s contracting practices had too many no-bid contracts, did not maintain records effectively and operated in a “lax control environment”
The current group of commissioners has also presided over a number of crises, such as the massive natural gas leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility.
“It’s been one fire drill after another,” Florio said in a telephone interview, describing his six-year term as “tumultuous.”
Florio faced calls to resign after emails surfaced indicating he engaged in behind-the-scenes discussions with a top PG&E executive, something Florio said was “mischaracterized,” pointing to his 30 years at The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group that monitors the CPUC.
“It’s not that any of these emails influenced me to do anything nefarious,” Florio said. “That’s not who I am and that’s not what happened but … I think the perception that, oh my god, the commissioner and this guy from PG&E are on a first name basis, they must be up to something, was something I didn’t fully appreciate going in because I thought, geez, after 30 years of fighting these guys as a consumer advocate, nobody would ever think that I would be conspiring with them. But that was how it looked even though it was not reality.”
Brown has has been criticized for standing in the way of CPUC reforms. He vetoed six bills aimed at the commission in 2015 but did sign new measures designed to improve the agency in September.
The current leadership at TURN offered qualified support for the appointments of Guzman Aceves and Rechtschaffen.
The group’s executive director, Mark Toney, praised the pair for “their expertise and qualifications” but expressed concern about whether they would provide sufficiently independent voices from the governor.
“We’re going to be watching very, very closely to make sure their decisions are based on the public interest and not simply because it’s a pet project of the governor,” Toney said. “Having one governor’s office appointee would be an issue of concern. Having two makes it even more so.”
Hill said he was pleased with the appointments, saying he worked closely with Guzman Aceves on his CPUC reform bills.
“I have confidence in both of them,” Hill said. “I think they have a good knowledge and good ability … And they know the difference between right and wrong.”
Dan Jacobson, the legislative director in Sacramento for Environment California, called Guzman Aceves and Rechtschaffen “fantastic appointments” who he expects to continue the state’s green energy push.
“When governors appoint weak appointees to the PUC the special interests have way more power,” Jacobson said. “When governors appoint strong appointees, that gives the citizens at least a leg up.”
Jamie Court, president of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, blasted the appointments, taking particular aim at Rechtschaffen, calling him a “lapdog for the oil industry.” Court pointed to a sworn statement by a former deputy at the state’s Department of Conservation who said Rechtschaffen tried to get the agency to fast track an oil drilling permit.
“This drivel does not merit a response,” Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said in an email to the Union-Tribune.
The nominations of Guzman Aceves and Rechtschaffen have to clear the state Senate’s rules committee and a majority vote of the full Senate in order to get confirmed to the posts that pay $142,095 a year.
Hill said on Wednesday that he doesn’t anticipate a dragged out process.
“I think the senators have a very positive feeling and a positive sense about both of them,” Hill said.
Outgoing commissioners Florio and Sandoval each served one term at the CPUC. Sandoval plans to return to the Santa Clara School of Law, where she was a professor.
“I’m going to take a month of so to decompress and assess my options,” said Florio, who turns 65 in February. “I’ve got several irons in the fire … This may be my last job so I want to think about it carefully.”