Sneak attack on public power

Pub date January 9, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL This is Mayor Gavin Newsom’s idea of shaking up his administration: fire a Public Utilities Commission director who has been doing a pretty decent job, then replace her with a city controller who has been pretty good at his job but will most likely be terrible at hers. The result should please nobody but Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

We’ve had our concerns about PUC director Susan Leal; she’s been tiptoeing oh-so-cautiously around public power when she ought to be leading the charge to kick PG&E and its illegal monopoly out of town. But at least she’s moving in the right direction, generally — and the fact that PG&E wants to get rid of her is a sign that she’s the kind of person the city ought to have at the helm of this crucial agency.

The logic of firing Leal makes so little sense. She has little more than a year left on her contract, and to pay her mandatory severance will cost the city $500,000, which the treasury can ill afford. And Newsom hasn’t pointed to anything she’s done wrong.

But city hall insiders say PG&E thinks she’s too aggressive about public power, and the giant utility can’t tolerate that. So Newsom quietly announced Friday afternoon, Jan. 4, that she was going to be replaced.

Of course, Newsom technically can’t fire the PUC general manager — only the commission can do that. And under the Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law, the mayor can’t call them all and seal the deal; the commissioners have to hold a meeting and talk about it. That meeting ought to be open to the public. The commissioners will try to close the doors, arguing that the general manager’s future is a confidential personnel matter — but that privilege exists to protect the employee, not the commissioners, and Leal has every right to waive it. She should fight back here, demand that the panel meet openly and discuss in public why she is being dismissed — and take the opportunity to challenge any claims against her and to make her case both for public power and for her continued employment.

This is far more than a simple dispute between an executive employee and an appointed commission; there are key policy issues at stake here — public power, community choice aggregation, and the city’s energy future — and they shouldn’t be settled in secret.

Ed Harrington has been a decent controller in many respects — but he’s never shown any indication of supporting public power. In fact, he’s done the opposite — every time the issue has come before him, he’s found a way to help PG&E. His estimates of the cost of public power ballot measures have been so wildly inflated as to be professionally embarrassing. For more than five years he’s refused to do what Sup. Chris Daly has requested and calculate the cost to the local economy of high PG&E rates. And Harrington was a senior PUC staffer when the sellout contracts with PG&E, Turlock, and Modesto were negotiated.

The Board of Supervisors should hold a hearing on these personnel changes and demand that Harrington appear and discuss publicly his position on CCA and PG&E. At the very least the voters should have the right to see this for what it appears to be: a Newsom-PG&E sneak attack on public power. And the board should pass Sup. Sophie Maxwell’s proposal to give it the authority to appoint some members of the PUC.