Jeff Ackerman: PG&E executives aren’t just any brain trust
I ran a newspaper on the island of Saipan many years ago called the Marinas News. The island is what authors refer to as a “speck in the ocean,” and since the island was roughly 11 miles long and 5 miles wide I could see why.
I’d come to the Marianas Island chain to get away from it all and Saipan is about as far away from it all as you can get, without falling off the map.
I learned quickly that things never happen when they are supposed to happen on Saipan. Mostly because the power never stayed on for a full day. The power went out my first night on the job and I panicked. “What if the power doesn’t come on in the next two hours? How are we going to make deadline?” I asked. “How will we get the paper out?”
“We’ll get the paper out when the power comes back on; whenever that is,” the publisher barked. “We’re an island. Our readers will get the news whenever we give it to them.”
I thought about that last week as my former colleagues at The Union were without power, along with roughly 8 million other Californians.
It’s difficult to publish a newspaper these days without electricity. Generators work to a point, but by the time you get one working the power has generally been restored. And you live with that because you know that the people charged with providing electricity are out there fighting a storm and doing their best to keep us powered up.
That wasn’t the case last week. By most all accounts, PG&E shut off the power on purpose. High winds were predicted in Southern California and PG&E was worried that those winds would down utility lines and transmission towers and the company was already in bankruptcy for basically destroying the town of Paradise last summer.
So the PG&E brain trust met and decided the best thing to do was to shut off power to most all of Northern California, where the Santa Ana Winds rarely reach.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t just any brain trust. These were executives who earn millions of dollars each year in wages and company stock. In fact, PG&E’s CEO Bill Johnson makes $2 million in salary and another few million in stock each year. He’s so good they paid him a $3 million bonus just to take the job last May.
Most of those highly paid executives were huddled in a “war room” in San Francisco when they shut the power off last Wednesday night. According to a piece in the New York Times, “As the utility turned the power off to millions of Californians, its website went down and it struggled to communicate with state officials and inform residents.”
It doesn’t sound as if those in the war room understood that the World Wide Web needs a good dose of electricity to be effective.
“What do you mean, our website is down?” they probably wondered.
The Times’ piece went on to say that, “things quickly began going wrong.”
“PG&E’s communications and computer systems faltered and its website went down, as customers tried to find out whether they would be cut off or spared,” read the Times piece by Ivan Penn.
“Roads and businesses went dark without warning, nursing homes and other critical services scrambled to find backup power and even government agencies calling the company (PG&E) were put on hold for hours.”
In other words, it was another bad night for PG&E.
But as bad as it was, it might have been an even worse August for several PG&E executives, who learned from a bankruptcy court judge that they might not get millions of dollars in promised bonus money because … well … because the company is bankrupt and bankrupt companies probably shouldn’t be paying executives millions of dollars while there are $30 billion in claims against the company for basically burning down an entire town.
Judge Dennis Montali — who was assigned to manage PG&E’s bankruptcy — ruled against an estimated $16.5 million bonus that PG&E lawyers said was due to a dozen of its executives.
“I’m very, very troubled by the proposed compensation package that could distribute as much as $16.3 million to 12 executives,” Judge Montali reportedly said in an early August hearing. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable giving them (executives) seven figure checks at the end of the year when there hasn’t been a single dollar given to the victims’ fund.”
A couple of weeks later, Judge Montali ruled against the bonus payouts.
He said PG&E had not shown how those executives’ work was related to the components outlined in the bonus plan. He also wondered how PG&E could afford to make those payments, given the burden of its wildfire liability that totals more than $30 billion over two years.
There is some indication that these intentional power shutoffs will continue, turning California into a “Third World” country, perhaps like Saipan, or maybe places where people sleep on the streets (pun intended).
The smart move here would be a generator. From my seat far removed from the clutches of a bankrupt power company, I would seriously consider oil lamps, candles, flashlights, blankets and a generator large enough to keep the milk and beer cold.
Rome is burning and the guys in charge of the hoses are filling their pockets with jewels.
Jeff Ackerman is the former publisher of The Union. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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