George Mitchell right to step aside as mediator of possible PG&E fines in San Bruno blast

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell has stepped down as the mediator who will consider whether to fine Pacific Gas & Electric over the deadly San Bruno blast. We consider his offer the best solution of a sticky situation that has raised concerns about inappropriate ties and closed-door dealings.

PG&E and the Consumer Protection Safety Division of the California Public Utilities Commission first asked judges to halt public hearings into potential fines for the 2010 explosion and fire that killed eight people. Then, days later, the commission unilaterally appointed the former senator and U.S. envoy to be the sole mediator. Other parties in the negotiations — including San Bruno, San Francisco and The Utility Reform Network — had no say in the mediator’s appointment.

Critics of Mitchell’s involvement pointed out that he is the chairman of a law firm that represents Southern California Edison, the Los Angeles-area power company that commission President Michael Peevey once headed. That law firm, DLA Piper, also represents a company that insures PG&E.

As we stated before, the distinguished Mitchell was not necessarily a bad choice for a mediator. But the manner in which he was selected — without notice to most of the proceedings’ participants and without any public vetting of his potential conflicts of interest and how those could be resolved — left the process tainted.

Everyone affected by the San Bruno blast deserves a fair outcome at the commission, including any potential fines to be levied against the utility that a blue-ribbon taskforce blamed for the disaster.

We believe the hearings themselves should be held in public. But at the very least, discussion of mediate those hearings should be open and transparent.

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