Power shift under way at the PUC

The appointment of Nancy Ryan as deputy executive director of the Public Utilities Commission is Round One of Gov. Brown’s long-anticipated plan to dramatically change the direction of the powerful panel. His other moves may unfold within the next week.

By shifting Ryan, a commission member, to the executive staff, Brown has three slots to fill – and, potentially, even four – on the five-member body that regulates communications, energy generation, railroads, furniture movers and more. The ability of a governor to make such changes in such a short span of time is unprecedented.

Front-running contenders for those positions include John Geesman, a former member and executive officer of the California Energy Commission, who took a leading role in the opposition campaign against Proposition 16, a June ballot measure pushed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to limit the creation of local, municipally owned utilities. Former state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, also has been mentioned as contender, and his selection is being pushed by San Joaquin Valley interests. The potential for changes at the PUC — and the energy commission — were detailed in a Nov. 11 story in Capitol Weekly.

Other contenders – all consumer advocates — include Michael Florio, a veteran consumer lawyer and ratepayer activist who served on the board of the Independent System Operator during the state’s electricity crisis. The potential appointees, reported Jan. 7 in the Los Angeles Times, include Catherine Sandoval, a Santa Clara University law professor and telecommunications expert; Jack McNally, a retired business official for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and Julia Levin, a former state energy commissioner and environmental attorney at the California attorney general’s office.

The terms of two commissioners Dian Grueneich and John Bohn, expired in December. Ryan, appointed a year ago, had to be confirmed this week by the Senate this week to remain on the commission. The Senate did not hold confirmation hearings, and Brown put Ryan — who submitted her resignation Thursday — on the commission staff, thus leaving a third vacancy that Brown can fill. Ryan’s new position does not require Senate confirmation.

Potentially, a fourth seat may become vacant.

The president of the PUC is Michael Peevey, a veteran utility executive. Peevey’s term expires in 2014, and he is expected to stay on the commission – unless Brown appoints a new PUC president. Peevey serves a fixed term and Brown cannot change it, but Brown does have the power to name another commissioner – Geesman, for example — as president. If that happens, Peevey may step down. 

All were appointed or reappointed to staggered, six-year terms by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Brown has not offered specifics about his plans. On Friday, his office said only that “aadditional appointments to the Commission will be announced in the days ahead.”

At the California Energy Commission, changes loom also. Two vacancies exist on the five-member panel, and the term of a third, Jeffrey Byron, expires this month.

Brown will also have an opportunity to appoint new members as terms expire during his administration.

In addition, Brown reportedly is interested in streamlining energy regulation and eliminating duplication, although few details were available. But given the state’s enormous budget problems, he is likely to find a support in the Legislature for downsizing the bureaucracy and combining state functions.

Brown is no stranger to dealing with the CEC. The commission started up operation in January 1975 as Brown began serving his first term, and he appointed its original members 35 years ago.

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