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New PUC chief Michael Picker vows openness, focus on safety

Rebuilding a “fair, open, accessible and effective” agency must start at the top, new PUC chief sa

Taking over amid scandal, the new president of the state's powerful Public Utilities Commission vowed Thursday to forge a more open and safety-conscious era at the agency.

Presiding over his first meeting at the PUC's headquarters in San Francisco, Michael Picker said the PUC faces big challenges in restoring public trust. Among his first priorities, he said, is to enact a commission code of conduct.

The PUC, he said, fell into a deep crisis after the 2010 explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. pipeline in the San Francisco bedroom city of San Bruno. The blast killed eight people and leveled a residential neighborhood. The agency's reputation was further damaged by the recent releases of emails that suggested a chummy relationship between then-President Michael Peevey and the power industry.

Picker called the emails and online memos "troubling," saying they created "uncertainty both in the public and inside the commission whether we are fair and evenhanded in our actions."

He said he would refuse to engage in such unauthorized exchanges, and called on his fellow commission members to do the same.

Rebuilding a "fair, open, accessible and effective" agency must start at the top, Picker said.

"I plan to ask my fellow commissioners today to join me in taking on a more hands-on role in the governance of this commission," he said.

Picker also heralded the PUC's tremendous economic regulatory power and praised its past work, particularly in fostering the development of renewable energy sources, essential in fighting global warming.

The commission, although often out of the public eye, is one of the most influential government agencies in California. It oversees corporate electric power and natural gas utilities, intrastate rail transportation, limousine and ride-sharing services, private water suppliers and short-haul moving companies.

The recent furor over improper contacts shined a harsh, critical spotlight on the normally low-key, 1,000-person bureaucracy based in San Francisco. It has been long criticized for being plodding, bureaucratic and overly legalistic.

Longtime PUC critics welcomed Picker's comments and his recent appointment as president by Gov. Jerry Brown. But they said they would reserve judgment until they gauge Picker's success at changing the PUC's governing culture.

"This was the first time there's been acknowledgment from the dais that things need to change," said Mindy Spatt, a spokeswoman for the Utility Reform Network, which represents ratepayers. "It does appear that the commission is going in a new direction toward transparency and focusing more on what matters to consumers. And certainly safety matters to consumers."

San Diego consumer attorney Michael Aguirre was more skeptical of Picker's promises. The new president, he said, should conduct an internal investigation into alleged wrongdoing and "back-door decision-making" involving the San Bruno explosion. The agency should also investigate how the costs of closing Southern California Edison Co.'s San Onofre nuclear power plant were divided between ratepayers, the utility and its shareholders, he said.

"What we are seeing," Aguirre said, "is a series of half measures and half-hearted reforms that will do nothing to root out the cancer of corruption at CPUC."

It's not enough to rely on the potential outcomes of ongoing state and federal law enforcement investigations, Aguirre said.

Officials at PG&E and Southern California Edison said they supported Picker's call for giving all parties in legal proceedings equal access to commissioners and staff. Edison said safety is its top priority, while PG&E said it's "committed to doing the right thing."

Emails released by the PUC and PG&E showed that Peevey freely communicated electronically and in person with power company executives, discussing pending legal and regulatory cases that affected their companies.

Such conversations with PUC members on commission matters, in the absence of the company's legal adversaries or ratepayer advocates, are generally prohibited by PUC rules. Federal and state law enforcement agencies are looking into the contacts between the PUC and PG&E.

"What I can do as president," Picker said, "is to make sure" such inappropriate communications don't happen again."

To that end, Picker said, he has hired an outside legal expert to come up with best practices to enforce bans on inappropriate communications between PUC officials and companies being regulated.

Picker's emphasis on both openness and safety pleased officials in San Bruno and their representative in the state Senate, Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo).

"This is the first time I've heard the president talk about safely codes.... I'm excited and encouraged by it," said Hill, a longtime PUC critic. "We're going to have to hold him to it."

marc.lifsher@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarcLifsher

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