Lawmakers demand PUC leadership change

by Wyatt Buchanan , San Francisco Chronicle

Lawmakers grilled the executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday, saying they see no progress on safety issues since the deadly San Bruno blast, and called for a change in leadership at the agency.

The strong words came at a legislative hearing to discuss a report based on interviews of top executives and other staff at the commission that was highly critical of the leadership of Executive Director Paul Clanon and the commissioners on safety issues.

Clanon said there had been some significant progress in making safety the commission’s top priority since the September 2010 gas pipeline explosion in the Crestmoor neighborhood that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

The PUC is responsible for overseeing the safety of gas pipelines and other utility-related infrastructure in the state. Clanon said he commissioned the report by a business consulting firm to learn about remaining "barriers" in the agency to making safety the top priority. But lawmakers scoffed at his assertion of progress.

"How can you look at this report, this internal report, and say there has been progress?" said Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Woodland Hills (Los Angeles County). "I look at it and I don’t see one iota of evidence of any progress on safety. I look at this and I see abject failure in the movement to change the safety culture."

Another member of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee 3 on Resources and Transportation, Assemblyman Richard Gordon, D-Menlo Park, who was president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors at the time of the blast, said he thinks Clanon and other top leaders at the commission are unable to improve safety.

"I candidly have come to the point where I believe it is time for us to have significant change in the leadership of the Public Utilities Commission if we’re going to absolutely get the change in safety culture that’s necessary in California," Gordon said.

Clanon acknowledged that the report is "not flattering," but he defended the commission’s efforts so far, including the naming of a new director of the Consumer Protection and Safety Division and the hiring of additional regulators at the agency.

He called the agency a "big ship" that takes time to turn, and said it is in the second year of a five-year process to change the culture at the PUC to one that prioritizes public safety.

"I have to move hearts and minds," he said. "It’s a human business. It’s a messy business."

Clanon said he disagreed with some of what his own staff said in interviews with the consultants who drafted the report, and afterward told reporters that he doesn’t see an overly cozy relationship between the PUC and the utilities it regulates.

"I read about accusations that the PUC is cozy with utilities and I keep on asking for an example of what somebody means by that," he said.

The president of the commission, Michael Peevey, is a former president of Southern California Edison and the commission’s general counsel was formerly counsel for the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

The chairman of the subcommittee, Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, said he wanted Clanon to provide to the committee specific short-, mid- and long-term milestones so the committee could track the PUC’s progress. He asked for those as soon as next week.

Bloom also criticized Clanon for saying parts of the report were based on untrue opinions.

"I think the continued use of this kind of language tends to undercut and minimize the importance of what these folks are telling you," he said.

Afterward, Clanon was asked if he would leave the PUC, as was suggested by lawmakers.

"I report to the commission. I serve at the pleasure of the commission. It’s up to them to decide my last day as executive director," he said.

The five-member commission is appointed entirely by the governor to six-year terms. There currently is one vacancy.