Public Utilities Commission Dismisses Executive Director Following California Personnel Board Special Investigation Report on Hiring Practices

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By Maddie Orcutt

At the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) meeting on August 31, 2020, the CPUC voted to dismiss Executive Director Alice Stebbins in closed session after a public hearing on the matter. Ms. Stebbins had served as the CPUC’s Executive Director since February 21, 2018.  Her dismissal came after an August 6, 2020, California State Personnel Board Special Investigation Report concluded that a series of hires made by the CPUC during Stebbins’ tenure were “highly questionable.” Although the report did not name Ms. Stebbins directly, it alleged that under the supervision of “AS,” the CPUC hired many employees with whom “AS” had previously worked. The report further concluded that “AS” preselected a former colleague for appointment to a career executive assignment, even though that individual was less qualified than other candidates, and identified several irregularities in processing the hiring of this individual. It also found the Commission’s lack of an anti-nepotism policy to be problematic.

In an August 4 letter from Stebbins’s attorney addressed to the Commissioners, Ms. Stebbins asserts that her termination proceedings have been initiated in retaliation for her repeated reports to the commissioners during her tenure regarding illegal practices at the CPUC. Specifically, Ms. Stebbins stated that shortly after assuming the role of Executive Director, she briefed the Commissioners about the CPUC’s alleged failure to collect about $200 million in unpaid accounts receivable from the industries that the CPUC regulates. Ms. Stebbins further alleged that the Commissioners showed no interest in recovering these uncollected fees and that Commission President Marybel Batjer resisted her efforts to develop policies and systems to remedy the collection of fees owed to the CPUC.

Ms. Stebbins requested a public hearing pursuant to Government Code section 11126(a)(2), which took place during the Commission’s August 31, 2020 meeting. Arocles Aguilar, General Counsel for the CPUC, moderated the hearing. At the hearing, President Batjer reiterated that under the California civil service system, all permanent hires and promotions must be based on merit. President Batjer stated that Ms. Stebbins was directly involved in the five hires which the State Personnel Board found to be questionable in its investigation. Among other things, President Batjer highlighted the report’s finding that Ms. Stebbins had preselected a candidate, that this candidate was less qualified than several other applicants, and that Ms. Stebbins had previously worked with this candidate for a total of fifteen years. President Batjer denied that the Commission had $200 million in uncollected fees and fines, and she further denied that Ms. Stebbins was appropriately characterized as a whistleblower.

In response, Ms. Stebbins’s attorney argued that her firing would be a clear case of retaliation against a whistleblower, and Ms. Stebbins further noted that some of the hiring processes in question were changed due to persistent challenges when attempting to fill vacancies at the CPUC. Ms. Stebbins also reiterated that she had been involved in many hiring processes during her time as Executive Director, only a small fraction of which were called into question. At the hearing, Ms. Stebbins also referenced the Commissioners’ text messages discussing her continued employment, which she cited as evidence that in early July 2020, President Batjer lobbied the other Commissioners in non-noticed, serial meetings to fire her in violation of the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act.

After its closed session, the Commission announced the dismissal of Ms. Stebbins in a 5-0 vote.

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