≡ Menu

keeleytestifyingAre you ready for some good news on the political front? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

Leading candidates for the open seat on the California Public Utilities Commission include East Bay Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner and former Central Coast legislator Fred Keeley, and that, as they say, is a win-win for those who would like to see the PUC return to its core mission of protecting the public interest.

Keeley’s name was forwarded to the governor by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and he is high on the short list. He would be an exceptionally good choice for the Central Coast because he knows all about the water shortages on the Peninsula and in coastal Santa Cruz County and would be in the perfect spot to shape the solution.

While Keeley was in the Assembly, he authored what came to be known as Plan B, a state policy statement favoring desalination instead of a new Carmel River dam as solution to the Peninsula’s water shortage. Though the Peninsula has struggled with that and other methods of addressing its severe water shortage, Keeley demonstrated considerable knowledge on both the political and technical fronts as he helped steer the process.

It’s an odd situation, but the PUC is in charge of the current effort to build a desalination plant to serve the Peninsula. As it stands, it has been content to let the Peninsula’s water purveyor, California American Water, mostly dictate the terms but someone with Keeley’s abilities on the commission could put the customers back into the equation.

During the state’s electricity crisis at the start of the century, Keeley was the Assembly’s point person on the exceedingly complex issue, advising both the Legislature and the governor’s office and negotiating with power producers and brokers.

Keeley, 64, a liberal Democrat, began his political career as an aide to Santa Cruz County supervisor Joe Cucchaira. He then became chief of staff to then-Assemblyman Sam Farr. He later served two terms on the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors before campaigning for an Assembly seat in 1996. He served two terms and quickly gained the reputation as a leader in budgeting and the environment.

He left the Assembly in 2002 because of term limits and became executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, turning down an appointment to head the state Department of Finance under Gov. Gray Davis. In 2005 he was appointed Santa Cruz County treasurer and he was elected to the position the next year.

A spot is open on the commission because its battered president, Michael Peevey, opted to leave at the end of his term this month rather than seek reappointment. It was essentially a compromise intended to spare him the embarrassment of removal over revelations of the commission’s remarkably friendly relationship with PG&E, which it purportedly regulates.

Peevey is a former chief executive of PG&E’s southern counterpart, Southern California Edison.

images-2

Nancy Skinner

Skinner, also a Democrat, doesn’t have the Central Coast connections that Keeley does but she has strong progressive credentials that suggest she would stand up rather than cozy up to the utilities.

She is leaving the Assembly this month because of term limits. She began her political career while she was a student at UC Berkeley, starting in student government and then becoming the first student elected to the Berkeley City Council. She earned degrees in natural resources and education.

While in the Assembly, Skinner distinguished herself in the areas of climate change and taxation.

{ 10 comments }

Does PUC President Peevey Have Dirt on Gov. Brown or What?

Businessman holding a cardboard with a clown on it in front of hIf Michael Peevey isn’t removed from the state Public Utilities Commission by the end of the week, it could finally be time for Californians to find a way to eliminate the commission and develop some other vehicle for regulating utilities.

The big news Monday was that four senior PG&E officials have been fired because they had been involved in a long exchange of emails that documented the sweetheart relationship between the energy company and its so-called overseers. Among many other things, the emails showed that the PUC, especially Peevey’s staff, welcomed the company’s input on which administrative law judges should preside over PG&E rate proceedings and other matters.

The emails leading to the departure of the PG&E crew add to a sorry record of inappropriate communications between the agency and the utility. For instance, last year when PG&E was indicted over the catastrophic natural gas explosions in San Bruno, Peevey, the commission president, didn’t give the company advice about safety. Instead, he quietly lectured it about PR. In an email, he told company officials that they should not have announced the coming indictment in advance because that resulted in two damaging news stories instead of one. He called PG&E’s attempt at transparency “inept.”

In response to Monday’s action, Peevey scrambled to save his job. After an earlier batch of inappropriate emails was distributed, Peevey canned one of his staffers. This time, he said he would recuse himself from the process of setting the fine against PG&E over the San Bruno explosions but would continue hearing PG&E rate matters. His response is as unsatisfactory as everything else he has done. He needs to be removed from office before he can do any more damage.

Other PUC officials said it seems the commission needs a refresher course on the rules, which obviously is true. PG&E was wrong to take advantage of an ethically challenged bureaucracy, but it is that bureaucracy that is the bigger villain here. One PUC official tried to put a positive spin on things, suggesting this is a good thing because it likely will lead to greater transparency. That demonstrates confusion about the meaning. When the public talks about transparency, it’s saying it wants better and more honest government, not simply a better view of the corruption.

Peevey was president of Southern California Edison before Gov. Gray Davis appointed him to the commission. One of the commission’s roles is to keep the state’s utilities healthy so they can stay in business and obtain financing at reasonable rates. Peevey gets that part but he apparently hasn’t a clue about its even more important role, protecting the public. It’s time for him to go.

{ 5 comments }

It was encouraging to hear that Cal Am is surveying area residents. Could it be that our water purveyor has decided to start listening to its customers? A lot of people on the Peninsula have a lot to say about the company, its price structure, its customer service, its approach to protecting its monopoly.

So I’ll admit to some disappointment when I learned that the telephone survey is only partly designed to find out what’s on the community’s mind. Unfortunately, it’s more like one of those “push polls,” in which the surveyor is engaged in spin more than in research.

shutterstock_117041995You may have been on the receiving end of such a poll during a political campaign: “Would you vote for So and So for county supervisor if you knew that he routinely drives drunk and does not recycle?” Or “Would you vote for Measure X if you knew it would end all property rights forever?”

The Cal Am survey is subtler than that but the intent reveals itself as the questions go on. It starts, interestingly enough, by asking for the respondent’s opinion of the Peninsula water management district, Cal Am, PG&E, city government and Monterey County government. The nice caller from Quantel, a research outfit out of Ogden, Utah, asks the respondent to rank each of them, from very favorable to very unfavorable. It then asks for impressions of various utility services, including cable TV, electricity, gas, cell phones, sewage and, of course, water.

Speaking of PG&E, here is an excellent editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle this week urging the removal of Public Utilities Commission Chairman Michael Peevey because of his extreme coziness with a company he supposedly regulates.

The poll continues. How do you like the way your water bill is calculated? (My own answer is that I would like it better if it resulted in smaller numbers.)

How do you feel about the reliability of your water service? Would you be willing to pay more for water if it would ensure an adequate supply during drought or other emergency? Excellent question, that one.

This may be one of the most important questions: Are you tired of the debate over who should own the water system? If so, how tired? And don’t you wish those darned elected and community leaders would work with Cal Am on a solution? (They didn’t really use “darned.”) The ownership question is particularly important because the group pushing for public ownership of the water system appears undaunted following its November defeat and is pursuing various strategies.

I emailed some questions of my own to Cal Am spokeswoman Catherine Stedman on Thursday. I wanted to know the purpose of the survey and who’s paying for it, Cal Am shareholders or ratepayers. I also asked about the cost. As of Friday morning, I haven’t heard anything back yet. I’ll update this if and when I do.

If you’d rather not wait, maybe you could ask Stedman yourself. Catherine.Stedman@amwater.com.

EVENING UPDATE: In response to an inquiry from a Partisan reader, Stedman had this to say: “The survey is an opinion research poll and it is being conducted by a very reputable firm, not at ratepayer expense.” Perhaps other Partisan readers can get her to disclose the purpose. 

I particularly enjoyed where the poll went next. Quantel wants to know to what extent folks agree that Cal Am has integrity. It might have been more interesting if the question had been worded like this: “If you knew that Cal Am spent a fortune to defeat a ballot measure regarding public ownership and used a variety of deceptive techniques in the process, would you think the company has integrity?”

If there was any question about whether this is about spin or research, the following points cleared it up. The poll asked respondents how they feel about Cal Am’s:

Involvement in the community

Management abilities

Rercord of keeping the community informed

Practice of sharing the community’s values

Concern for its shareholders and workers

Rate structure, which requires big water users to pay more than small water users

Its performance in finding a new water supply

The survey taker also wanted to know how people feel about Cal Am’s practice of providing rain barrels to area schools, providing training grants to firefighting groups, and providing water-bottle filling stations at the airport.

I’m guessing a fair number of people like those things. But then the survey goes deep with tougher questions. Such as how do you feel about Cal Am’s 75 employees living right here, and how do you feel about Cal Am’s success in fixing leaks to the point that it ranks better than average? How does it make you feel to know that you pay just a penny for a gallon of tap water compared to what you pay for bottled water? How do you feel about Cal Am’s highly reliable service?

Buried among the fluffy questions are a couple of good ones. How do you feel about the proposed desalination plant? Do you think it will ever get built? How much of an impact do you believe it will have? Good questions that might have been even better about a decade ago.

Have you heard about sharp rate increases? If so, how concerned are you?

Near the end, the survey includes a message from Cal Am President Rob McLean saying the company had been caught off guard by the move to the four-tier pricing structure and was not set up to handle it. He may be talking about those huge bill spikes for customers whose homes did or did not develop leaks. He correctly notes that the result may have shaken consumer confidence in the company, and he apologizes for the inconvenience.

Among the concluding questions is this. Now, having heard all this, what do you think of Cal Am?

Feel free to use the comment section below to answer that question for yourself. You’ll find that the comment box is blacked out. You can leave a comment in the blacked out box though it is very hard to read what you are typing. I do not know why it is like that, but I’m working on it. Sorry for the inconvenience.

{ 21 comments }