The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) has failed to protect ratepayers from investor owned utilities for many years. But it still came as a shock when—without public or legislative participation—the CPUC quietly changed its mission statement.
Water Rate Advocates for Transparency, Equity and Sustainability (WRATES) is a grassroots watchdog coalition, and we discovered the revision in the course of our research. The change is subtle but alarming.
For decades, the regulatory agency’s mission statement read as follows:
The CPUC serves the public interest by protecting consumers and ensuring the provision of safe, reliable utility service and infrastructure at reasonable rates, with a commitment to environmental enhancement and a healthy California economy.
It now reads:
The CPUC regulates services and utilities, protects consumers, safeguards the environment, and assures Californians’ access to safe and reliable utility infrastructure and services.
Gone from the mission statement are any references to reasonable rates. Rather, it appears the agency is distancing itself from consumers and further aligning itself with price-gouging utility companies.
When we asked CPUC Executive Director Timothy Sullivan about the new language, he said it came as a result of public discussion.
“The modification of the mission statement arose from a very public strategic planning process conducted by the commissioners acting as a governance board," he told us, calling it “the first such effort in over 20 years.”
Despite editing out the reference to reasonable rates from the CPUC mission statement, Sullivan assured us that the agency will protect the interest of consumers.
“One driver of the change was the fact that the previous mission statement failed to embrace the major programs we fund to provide low income, rural and handicapped Californians access to the state's infrastructure,” he said. “Our statutory obligation to ensure that energy [and water] rates are just and reasonable remains unchanged.”
What Sullivan apparently fails to understand is that the CPUC does not, actually, fund these programs. Ratepayers do. Removing “reasonable rates” from the core mission statement does not help “embrace” these other major programs. To us, the consumer advocates at WRATES, the new verbiage signals that the CPUC considers ratepayers a lesser priority than its relationship with investor-owned utility companies.
Despite our intense scrutiny of the CPUC in the past year, WRATES members were never notified of this “very public process,” nor have we found documentation of public notices to the ratepayers.
All Californians serviced by investor-owned, CPUC-regulated gas, electric, telecom giants and the 6 million-plus residents served by private water retailers (such as the San Jose Water Company, Cal Water, Cal Am and Golden State) should be very concerned with the CPUC’s past practice and currently articulated direction in aligning itself even further with industry interests.
The investor-owned water corporations have seen record profits on the backs of the ratepayers, all because the CPUC approves price hikes virtually every time a utility company asks for one.
To rebuild trust with the public, the CPUC needs to admit its mistakes and learn from them (as it promises in its values statement). It should also reverse decisions that have hurt ratepayers and, in regards to San Jose Water in particular, require the company to return the millions of dollars it owes from over-billing customers.
If the CPUC’s statutory obligation hasn’t changed, then why did it alter its mission statement? The commission hasn’t a clue as to how their decisions are affecting the very people they are statutorily obligated to protect.
Rita Benton is a founding member of Water Rate Advocates for Transparency, Equity and Sustainability (WRATES). To get involved, go to the WRATES website at sjwfacts.weebly.com or the Water Rates Coalition website at waterratescoalition.com. WRATES has also created a Change.org petition to lower water bills. WRATES and the statewide Water Rates Coalition are grassroots groups started by citizens outraged by unsustainable water rate escalations. They seek lower rates and legislative reform of the CPUC.