State's Public Utilities Commission Executive Ousted

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The embattled executive director at the state’s Public Utilities Commission was fired Monday for alleged cronyism and other irregularities in her hiring of top staff members. 

Alice Stebbins, a veteran of water and air quality regulatory agencies before coming to the commission in 2018, insists that she was ousted not for hiring issues, but for blowing the whistle on $200 million in uncollected fees owed by the state’s utilities. 

Leading the charge to fire Stebbins was Marybel Batjer, who was appointed last year as president of the commission by Gov. Gavin Newsom, replacing the president who hired Stebbins, Michael Picker. 

“You took a series of actions over several years which call into question your integrity,” Batjer said Monday before she and her colleagues voted unanimously to fire Stebbins.

Batjer cited irregularities found in the report related to the hiring of five top staff members who once had worked closely with Stebbins for positions where more qualified candidates lost out. That report blamed both Stebbins and the CPUC human resources department for a hiring process of “highly questionable legitimacy.”

Batjer said Monday that she was concerned not only with the findings of the state personnel board’s probe but how Stebbins handled them. She said that Stebbins went so far as to suggest to commission officials that they could somehow make the personnel board findings “go away.”

Speaking in her defense, Stebbins told the board prior to the closed door vote that she had served the state well during her long career as well as her two years at the troubled agency. She said she hired some 800 people and made progress in both wildfire safety efforts and fiscal accountability. 

“I know without a doubt that they had to get rid of me because I blew the whistle on the $200 million dollars,” she said in her presentation to the commission.

Stebbins, bureaucratic veteran at both water resources and air quality agencies, said her firing had nothing to do with her hiring practices, and everything to do with campaign for reform and fiscal accountability. She said she did not want to resign, because that would be an admission of wrongdoing. 

She also stressed that she repeatedly brought up her concerns about the unpaid fees to Batjer and suffered the consequences for her efforts. 

Before the dismissal vote, Stebbins’ attorneys denounced the hearing as a “kangaroo court,'' citing Batjer’s role as both advocate for her dismissal as well as a voting on the matter. 

They also cited what they said were secret text messages, including one Batjer sent to a fellow commissioner in July pushing for Stebbins’ dismissal.

“It’s not tenable for her to stay,” Batjer wrote. 

While downplaying the extent of unpaid fees, Batjer bristled at any suggestion of wrongdoing, stressing, “None of us interfered with your work in any way.”

Stebbins has already signaled she will sue over being terminated.

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