The Mercury News
By George Avalos
SAN FRANCISCO — Gov. Jerry Brown has named two of his key aides to fill vacancies at the scandal-scarred state Public Utilities Commission, the governor’s office said Wednesday.
Brown appointed Martha Guzman Aceves and Clifford Rechtschaffen to the powerful state commission. They will replace departing commissioners Michael Florio and Catherine Sandoval, whose six-year terms expire on Jan. 1.
Guzman Aceves, 39, of Sacramento, has been a deputy legislative affairs secretary in the Office of the Governor since 2011. Her primary focus has been on natural resources, environmental protection, energy and food and agriculture.
Rechtschaffen, 59, of Oakland, has served as a senior adviser in the governor’s office since 2011. He has worked on climate, energy and environmental issues in that role. In 2011, he also served as acting director of the state’s Department of Conservation.
“Martha has the experience, know-how and insight to well serve the people of California at the Public Utilities Commission,” Brown said in a statement. “Cliff’s experience as a lawyer, teacher and specialist in environmental and energy matters equips him to do an outstanding job on the Commission.”
Rechtschaffen’s appointment, however, quickly drew condemnation from Consumer Watchdog, which has harshly criticized the governor’s ties to California utilities and large oil companies.
“Governor Brown has just turned the keys of the Public Utilities Commission over to another oil industry loyalist who did the industry’s wet work in firing tough oil well regulators in 2011,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.
The PUC has been under fire for several years over lax regulatory oversight of the state’s major utilities, criticism that intensified after a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the fatal explosion in San Bruno caused by PG&E.
“Reform is badly needed at the PUC,” said Loretta Lynch, a former PUC commissioner who is a harsh critic of the regulatory agency. “The PUC is so thoroughly disgraced by the actions of prior commissioners that reforms are essential.”
In its investigation of the deadly San Bruno explosion, the NTSB determined that a combination of shoddy maintenance and flawed record keeping by PG&E, along with lazy oversight by the utility, were the primary causes of the blast, which killed eight people and leveled a San Bruno neighborhood.
The release of 65,000 emails in January 2015 sketched a picture of close ties between PG&E and the PUC. Other disclosures have shown the PUC also has nurtured a cozy relationship with Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.
Critics have said that the PUC’s accommodation of the state’s big power companies flourished under the leadership of former PUC president Michael Peevey.
Peevey left the PUC at the end of 2014 under a cloud. That cloud intensified in January 2015 after state criminal investigators served search warrants at Peevey’s home in Los Angeles County and the Orinda residence of Brian Cherry, a former regulatory executive with PG&E. The state Attorney General’s Office is continuing an investigation of the PUC and PG&E.
One advocacy group applauded the appointments.
“The new commissioners really understand that to achieve our ambitious statewide goals, it can’t just be a few communities that have access to green energy, it has to be all communities,” said Stephanie Chen, energy and telecommunications policy director with the Oakland-based Greenlining Institute. “They understand both the challenges and the opportunities when we get it right.”
The new commissioners are expected to take over their new tasks in January.
“By putting two of his top aides on the PUC, the governor wants to be sure that the PUC does what he wants,” Lynch said.
The appointments are subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
“Both appointees have sound judgment and a commitment to protecting ratepayers and ensuring safe, reliable and climate-friendly energy in California,” Gov. Brown said.