The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) scheduled a meeting Aug. 17 to consider whether to dismiss its executive director, as her attorneys allege the agency is retaliating against her for "whistleblowing in her effort to clean up a broken CPUC."
In a letter to commissioners, Executive Director Alice Stebbins’ attorney said companies like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and AT&T have lobbied for her removal. Regulators, per the letter, have linked her potential dismissal to criticisms around some of her hires.
"The allegation that PG&E has lobbied for the removal of any CPUC personnel is false," utility spokesperson Lynsey Paulo said in an emailed statement. PG&E is committed to complying with laws and regulations governing its interaction with the regulator, and provides yearly training for employees that routinely interact with the CPUC, Paulo said.
The CPUC’s executive director is essentially like the chief of staff, Mike Florio, former CPUC commissioner and senior fellow at Gridworks, said. The executive director oversees all of the division directors as well as the administrative functions of the commission, like budgets, contracts and personnel, he said.
"It’s a very key position and at different times, different directors have approached it in different ways," Florio said — some are very involved with policy, while others focus primarily on the administrative side of things.
Florio said he was completely surprised when the news of Stebbins’ allegations broke. Stebbins, who previously served stints at the California Air Resources Board and the State Water Resources Control Board, took on the role of CPUC executive director in early 2018.
In the letter to the commission, Stebbins’ attorney, Karl Olson, said Stebbins was trying to address around $200 million in uncollected fees that were due to the CPUC, much of which related to the agency’s Water Division, but was met with resistance by CPUC President Marybel Batjer, among others. Olson accused Batjer of conducting "a series of illegal closed meetings designed to orchestrate the removal of Executive Director Stebbins."
"I think there’s been a pattern at the PUC for a long time, which Ms. Stebbins was trying to break… of the PUC being extremely cosy with the entities that it’s supposed to regulate," Olson said in an interview, adding that the attorneys have made a California Public Records Act request for commissioner records and communications that involve Stebbins’ potential dismissal, which they believe will reveal communications with PG&E.
CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper said the agency does not comment on personnel matters or pending litigation issues.
Prosper also referred to a California State Personnel Board report issued last week, which identified "highly questionable" hires at the agency, which involved Stebbins as well as the CPUC’s human resources division, including a director that the report indicates was "pre-selected" for the role. In an email to CPUC staff on Monday, President Batjer said the agency has initiated a review of the report’s findings, "which have raised serious concerns and which necessitate the consideration of corrective actions."
Stebbins was informed by Batjer that she will be removed because of the findings of the report, Olson said in his letter. But he said that nothing in the report justified her removal.
"Ms. Stebbins was trying to stand up to industry. She was tough on them — and so I think that’s certainly a part of why we feel very strongly that her whistleblowing activity is the reason they want to get rid of her," Olson said.
The CPUC has scheduled a meeting on Monday to consider Stebbins’ dismissal. The meeting will include an opportunity for public comment, but commissioners will discuss the issue in a closed session after the public hearing.