State Sen. Bill Dodd calls for PG&E leadership change

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State Sen. Bill Dodd who earlier this year co-authored a law to help PG&E pay for the wildfires now wants a management shakeup at the utility company.

The Napa Democrat called for a change in PG&E leadership, citing state reports that found the utility at fault in several deadly wildfires. Dodd was responding to claims made last week by the California Public Utilities Commission that PG&E had falsified safety records for underground gas pipelines for years, following a San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people in 2010.

“PG&E has demonstrated a pattern of poor management and illegal conduct that has shattered lives across California,” Dodd said in a news release Thursday. “This latest revelation underscores the need for systematic change, which must include change on the board of directors and in the executive suite.”

In a response last week to the commission’s claims, PG&E admitted it “did not live up to our commitment to accurate reporting and record-keeping in this case.” It also outlined several changes it planned to make, including hiring auditors to oversee the system, adding pipeline-safety personnel and “making a number of personnel and organizational changes including some leaders no longer being with the company.”

Dodd did not respond to interview requests Thursday from The Press Democrat.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he declined to say whether he believes PG&E CEO Geisha Williams should step down. But he did suggest it’s inappropriate for executives who were at the company during the San Bruno explosion to remain.

Williams joined the company in 2007, though she was not named CEO until last year.

Dodd, co-chair of a Senate-Assembly committee overseeing wildfire legislation, played an influential role in the Legislature this year as it crafted measures that directly impacted PG&E. He co-wrote a bill allowing the company to pass some of its wildfire-related costs on to PG&E customers. Opponents of the bill criticized it as a "bailout" for a company that put profits before safety, while supporters said it would stabilize utility rates and prevent PG&E from going bankrupt while helping fire victims receive some compensation from the utility.

The legislation only applied to the 2017 fires, as well as any fires in 2019 and beyond. Legislation is expected in the upcoming session that would seek to extend its provisions to the 2018 fires, the most destructive in state history.

In response to Dodd’s call for a leadership change, PG&E said in a news release it is “committed to taking the actions necessary to do our work safely and re-earn the trust of our customers.”

On Thursday afternoon, PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said the company was not prepared to say whether it believes the current leadership team should be changed.

“We understand the serious concerns,” Contreras said in a phone interview. “We’re committed to taking further actions if necessary.”

Dodd in his statement criticized what he sees as PG&E’s failure to take responsibility for its actions.

“Right now there’s a bunker mentality that makes it impossible for the necessary change to occur at PG&E and to ensure the long-term safety of our state and the financial well-being of ratepayers,” Dodd said. “We must see clear and meaningful change, and I expect the CPUC to take action to force improvements in PG&E’s governance and safety culture.”

PG&E has faced a series of challenges from state agencies and lawsuits in recent years. Long-running legal action against the company stemming from the San Bruno explosion resulted in its conviction on six charges in 2016 for violating federal pipeline regulations and obstructing a federal investigation into the incident. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson required PG&E to submit to oversight by a federal monitor and pay a $3 million fine. He also ordered the utility to run an advertising campaign detailing the conviction and perform 10,000 hours of community service, including 2,000 hours performed by executives.

The company’s troubles continued after the conviction, as a series of lawsuits alleged it was responsible for numerous California wildfires over the last two years. Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, as well as the city of Santa Rosa, have sued PG&E, alleging it is responsible for the October 2017 wildfires, which destroyed 5,300 homes and killed 24 people in Sonoma County.

A class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month accused PG&E of being at fault for Butte County’s Camp fire, which grew into the deadliest wildfire in California history and killed over 80 people.

Cal Fire released in June the results of an investigation that found PG&E was responsible for a dozen wildfires in 2017.

Cal Fire still hasn’t released the cause of the Tubbs fire.

Protesters have harshly criticized the utility, and shut down a CPUC meeting last month while demanding a public takeover of the company.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or at andrew.beale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @iambeale.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to more clearly describe Sen. Bill Dodd's role in wildfire legislation, the scope of his bill, and the arguments by supporters and critics.

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