By Riley Minkoff
On September 28, 2021, California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) President Marybel Batjer announced her resignation as of the end of December 2021 in an email to agency staff. However, the CPUC has yet to post any press release about Batjer’s resignation on their website. Batjer’s term as president was not set to expire until the end of 2026, and her resignation comes only two years after Governor Newsom initially appointed her to the position (on July 12, 2019). The five CPUC Commissioners each hold office for staggered six-year terms, and on June 15, 2020, the State Senate confirmed her appointment to the CPUC. [26:1 CRLR 173]
President Batjer did not provide a public statement nor any reason for her premature departure, but news sources reported that in her email to staff she stated it was a difficult decision “in the face of a changing climate and global pandemic.” Her resignation comes amidst ongoing investigations into Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and its role in recent wildfires. Much of Batjer’s tenure as president focused on increasing oversight over the state’s largest investor-owned utility company. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in 2019, and the CPUC approved a plan in 2020 that would allow the company to exit bankruptcy subject to greater oversight. This six step plan led the CPUC to create an “Enhanced Oversight and Enforcement of PG&E” page on their website specifically designed to monitor PG&E’s progress and safety performance. Currently, PG&E remains in step one of that “exit from bankruptcy” plan.
Media sources have reported that many environmental organizations and utility workers, such as The Center for Biological Diversity, have criticized Batjer and the CPUC for not holding utility companies accountable and for not doing enough to help the transition to renewable energy. According to newspapers such as The San Diego Union Tribune, many organizations believe that the CPUC, under Batjer, has allowed utility companies to neglect their electrical infrastructure, resulting in harm and potential danger to millions of Californians. Critics have called for a utility regulator who will hold PG&E and other utility companies accountable for the problems companies have caused residents.
However, news sources also reported that Governor Newsom praised the CPUC president following her resignation letter on September 28, 2021. In his response, Governor Newsom stated that “[f]or decades, Marybel Batjer has helped tackle the most persistent challenges confronting Californians head-on…[s]he is a passionate, smart and thoughtful leader and I’m grateful for her service to the [s]tate of California and wish her all the best in future endeavors.” Batjer had written in her email that she was “grateful for Governor Newsom’s support” and that she intended to focus the remainder of tenure on “better position[ing] the state for the reliability and safety challenges of this and subsequent summers and wildfire seasons.”
Batjer also had to deal with issues stemming from California’s power grid during her two-year tenure, such as rolling blackouts in August of 2020. Though California’s power grid is run by the Independent System Operator (ISO) Batjer and the CPUC took some of the blame for poor planning that led to these blackouts. Since then, the CPUC has been working on ways to make the grid more reliable. In her resignation letter, President Batjer said she and the CPUC have worked hard to support Californians during these challenging times. She stated that supporting Californians became her mission over the past two years, and she will leave the CPUC knowing its leadership will continue to carry on that focus and determination.
During her tenure, Batjer, along with the rest of the CPUC commissioners, also voted to dismiss the former Executive Director of the CPUC, Alice Stebbins, at a meeting on July 16, 2020. This was one of the many events in a contentious dispute over Stebbins’s personnel decisions and other agency mismanagement claims during her time at the CPUC. At a public hearing on August 31, 2020, President Batjer stated that Stebbins was directly involved in the five hires which the State Personnel Board found to be questionable in its own separate investigation. She denied allegations Stebbins made against her, and there is now an ongoing lawsuit by Stebbins against the CPUC following her filing of a whistleblower complaint. [26:2 CRLR 202-04] The lawsuit is currently in the discovery stage, and as of June 7, 2021, a reply was filed in support of a motion for leave to file the first amended petition for writ of mandamus and other appropriate relief.
When asked who will become the commission’s next president and when the announcement will be made, the CPUC did not comment. Governor Newsom must now appoint a new president to the commission to be confirmed by the state legislature. His office, according to media sources, stated that he will decide on a replacement by the end of the year. At the end of her resignation letter it was reported that Batjer wrote, “I have had the privilege of serving four California governors and have given my all to public service for many decades. I am now ready for a new challenge and adventure.”