Former Sen. Mitchell criticized as mediator chosen in PG&E San Bruno blast settlement

Getty Images File PhotoCritics complain that former Senator George Mitchell's appointment as the San Bruno blast settlement mediator will prevent the public from getting information about the negotiations.

Politicians and reform groups are denouncing the California Public Utilities Commission’s recent decision to retain an outside mediator to preside over settlement negotiations with PG&E regarding the San Bruno blast.

Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, called the selection of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell as a mediator and postponement of the commission’s hearings a backroom deal that will prevent the public from getting information about the negotiations.

Toney was joined by Assemblyman Jerry Hill,  D-San Mateo; San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane; and San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera in objecting to the commission’s decision Monday to name the former Senate majority leader and special envoy as a mediator.

Settlement negotiations have been ongoing for months, Toney said. But the decision to bring a mediator was not agreed upon by all parties — including TURN.

“It was made in secret,” Toney said. “Generally having an agreement in mediation is a good idea. And part of that is negotiating and choosing a mediator together that is knowledgeable and not biased — not making a leap of faith when a mediator is imposed on you.”

San Bruno officials also denounced the decision to appoint a mediator without input.

“We’re irate,” Ruane said. “This process has not been open and transparent or fair. We think backroom deal.”

While several of the critics noted that Mitchell also serves as chairman of DLA Piper LLC, a law firm that represents Southern California Edison, Ruane said his protests are more focused on the “coziness” between PG&E and the commission that regulates it.

“This is the exact reason San Bruno happened,” Ruane said. “The coziness between PG&E and a group that is supposed to regulate them let regulations slide.”

However, commission and PG&E officials applauded the appointment, saying the mediator will help move the negotiations forward.

“We support the commission’s decision,” the utility said in a statement. “Senator Mitchell has a distinguished career, including experience presiding over many complex negotiations. We are committed to working with Sen. Mitchell and the commission to achieve a fair and comprehensive settlement of these issues.”

PG&E was found responsible for the 2010 blast that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno’s Crestmoor neighborhood. As a result, the commission has opened investigative hearings into the blast, PG&E’s record keeping and the way the utility labels its gas lines.

Last week, the commission’s Consumer Protection Safety Division and PG&E asked administrative law judges in three separate proceedings to suspend hearings until Nov. 1 to allow for settlement negotiations. That request was granted Friday.

akoskey@sfexaminer.com

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