California consumers can be excused if they’re beginning to wonder whether Gov. Jerry Brown cares a whit about blatantly corrupt conduct by some of his appointees to very high state offices.
That feeling grew more intense the other day with the appointment of Mark Ferron to the governing board of the state’s Independent System Operator, which manages the electric grid serving all of this state and part of Nevada. Essentially, its job is to keep the lights on, with a major voice in what kinds of power generation California will use.
Why should the appointment of Ferron, a former managing director of the London-based Global Markets Division of Deutsche Bank, ring alarm bells?
It’s because Brown previously put Ferron, a 56-year-old resident of bucolic Mill Valley in Marin County, on the troubled state Public Utilities Commission in 2011, about two years after he left his former job in England. While Ferron professes love for California, he’s spent most of his working life elsewhere.
Ferron served three years on the five-member PUC, whose members get five-year terms and cannot be removed even by the governor who appoints them. He resigned early last year to deal with a serious case of prostate cancer, but during his tenure cast no votes disagreeing with disgraced former PUC President Michael Peevey on any significant issue.
He was part of the commission when it went easy on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. over the 2010 San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion, which led to the company’s indictment for criminal negligence. He failed to dissent on the thoroughly discredited deal by which consumers will pay most decommissioning costs of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, even though the facility’s closure was caused by Southern California Edison Co. decisions the company knew were flawed before it acted on them.
He voted for every proposed solar thermal project that came before him, essentially endorsing hugely expensive desert-based solar panel arrays over far less costly rooftop solar. The desert solar farms also require massive investments in power lines to bring their electricity to cities where it’s used.
And he cooperated in the formative stages of the PUC’s electricity price restructuring, originally proposed by PG&E, which will increase utility company revenues at the expense of the smallest, poorest power users.
So Ferron’s votes will contribute to billions of dollars in extra consumer costs. He did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him by phone for explanations.
Ferron also was among Peevey’s most vocal supporters when the former agency boss departed amid still-ongoing state and federal investigations into alleged criminal conspiracy to hoist utility rates.
Peevey, Ferron told one reporter, “has done a fantastic job for this state” and “is a guy who wants to get things done.”
That somewhat echoed Brown, who remarked about the same time that Peevey “certainly got things done.”
It’s true that Ferron might have consented to some Peevey-pushed rulings because commissioners essentially must go along to get along while serving. Vote against the commission president, who assigns cases that individual commissioners supervise, and you’re likely to be put onto the Podunk Water Co.’s rate increase request, rather than far more interesting and wide-reaching cases from Edison, PG&E or other large utilities.
Brown press secretary Evan Westrup explained the appointment in boiler-plate language: “Our focus is on appointing individuals with the knowledge, experience and judgment to make sound decisions and serve the state well. We expect Mark will do just that in his new role.”
Ferron’s new job requires state Senate confirmation, but he can serve a full year before there’s a vote. “I will be watching closely,” said Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat and frequent PUC critic. “Some things he’s said could be significant or have positive potential. We often wait to see how people perform before holding hearings on their appointments.”
Of course, one problem with appointments both to PUC, the Independent Service Operator and the also questionable state Energy Commission is that they seldom get concerted legislative attention. Maybe the scandal involving Peevey and possibly some other, current PUC members will change that, as there’s increased public awareness of the agency’s importance.
But the bottom line on this appointment is that the onus is on Ferron to prove that his new gig is not just a reward for going along with corruption in the powerful post he previously held.