PUC commissioner Michael Picker is determined to push safety agenda

PUC commissioner Michael Picker is determined to push safety agenda
PG&E was indicted by the federal government on 12 alleged safety violations stemming from a 2010 natural gas explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. The California Public Utilities Commission was caught flat-footed by the explosion. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

A new face showed up early this year on the steps of the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco, where officials regulate the state's corporate electric and gas utilities and other services.

Handing out orange leaflets was not some angry protester. It was the just-appointed member of the five-person commission, Democrat Michael Picker, 62, of Sacramento, a former energy aide to Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Safety does not happen by accident," the flier read. "If you see a safety hazard and don't think it has received attention, call or text Michael Picker at 916.425.2131."

Appointed Jan. 29 by Brown to serve the last 11 months of a predecessor's term, Picker said that safety must be a key issue for power regulators. Since then, Picker said he's been carrying out a mandate from the governor "to go down there and make things work better."


That's no easy task at a 1,000-person bureaucracy rocked by scandals involving allegations that commissioners and top staff are too cozy with utilities they regulate.

Just over three years earlier, the agency was caught flat-footed by a natural gas explosion that killed eight people and leveled a residential neighborhood in the Bay Area community of San Bruno.

Picker said he handed out the leaflets "to make sure that everyone knew I was going to put myself out there to be accountable" for improving safety in the industries that the PUC oversees. That includes natural gas, electricity, intrastate rail and bus service, ride-sharing services and some telecommunications.

With eight months on the job, Picker figures he has already made some progress. The state Senate in August unanimously confirmed his appointment to the $128,000-a-year post.

The biggest achievement, he said, was persuading commission President Michael Peevey and three other commissioners to adopt a first-ever, high-level set of safety guidelines for staff to follow in developing new inspection and enforcement programs.

Although critics wondered at the time whether it was more talk than action, Picker stresses that he's only just begun to modernize safety and other regulatory processes. "There's a rigorous system that people need to follow that we don't have at the PUC," he says.

How much more Picker does is up to the governor. Both Picker and the controversial Peevey are up for reappointment at year's end. Some PUC watchers say Picker might be Brown's pick to replace Peevey, 76.

Longtime PUC critic Jerry Hill, a Democratic state senator from San Mateo said Picker's biggest weakness is a lack of technical skills in utility management. "But those," he said, "are learned skills."

V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento, said Picker "is an outsider with strong views." But making him president wouldn't necessarily solve the PUC's many problems, he said. "There needs to be wholesale reform."

Twitter: @MarcLifsher