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Psst. PG&E’s top leaders expected in Paradise and Chico, but post-wildfire tour is secret

The top leaders of PG&E Corp. were believed to be visiting Chico on Thursday as part of tour that would take them to Paradise on Friday to inspect damage from the Camp Fire.

But officials in both cities said they’ve been unable to get any details about the visit, which was ordered by the federal judge overseeing the utility’s criminal probation. The judge said he wanted PG&E officials to meet with city officials, firefighters and others to understand the devastation of last November’s fire.

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones and Town Council member Michael Zuccolillo said they met with PG&E Chief Executive Bill Johnson when he toured their town privately about two weeks ago. At the time, Johnson told them he and the PG&E board of directors — a group of 13 high-powered financial and energy executives — would visit Friday.

Since then, however, they’ve been kept in the dark, “which is really weird,” said Paradise Mayor Jody Jones. “I don’t know if they want a private visit and no press around.”

The group is believed to be spending part of Thursday in neighboring Chico, said Chico City manager Mark Orme. But Orme said he hasn’t been contacted by the company and he had no details about the Chico portion of the visit. Thousands of Paradise residents who lost their homes in the Camp Fire have relocated to Chico, putting a strain on city services.

PG&E spokesman James Noonan declined comment Thursday, referring a reporter to the U.S. Probation Office, which is coordinating the trip.

A spokeswoman for the department, Lynn Fuller, said in an email: “For security reasons, the Court will not at this time say when or where the event will be or whether it has already occurred; the Court will release a further statement in due course.”

Zuccolillo said he’s bothered by the lack of information about the trip. “The council doesn’t even know,” said the Paradise council member. “It’s very frustrating to me.” Zuccolillo and Jones were among those whose homes were destroyed in the fire, the deadliest in California history.

Cal Fire has declared that November’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed 90 percent of Paradise’s housing stock, was caused by malfunctioning PG&E equipment.

Last month U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who has been critical of PG&E’s safety record, ordered Johnson and the board of directors to tour Paradise by mid-July. In his written order, Alsup told the executives to get “a firsthand understanding of the harm inflicted on those communities and meet with victims and others stakeholders, such as fire-fighting personnel and/or city officials.”

Alsup has taken a supervisory role in PG&E’s affairs because the company is on probation after being found guilty in connection with the 2010 pipeline explosion that killed eight people in San Bruno.

Johnson became PG&E’s CEO in April after a long tenure as head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned electric utility. On May 15, the same day Cal Fire officially blamed PG&E for the Camp Fire, Johnson told an Assembly committee in Sacramento that PG&E needs to become accountable to customers and wildfire victims.

“The first thing that I’m going to do is bring an intense focus back to the fundamentals of operating a utility system,” he said.

The company has pledged to spend $105 million helping Camp Fire survivors with living expenses.

Facing an estimated $30 billion in liabilities from the Camp Fire and the 2017 wine country fires, PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January. The company has come under intense pressure from state officials to reform its corporate culture and improve its safety record.

At about the same time Johnson took over, the company overhauled its board of directors to put a greater emphasis on leaders with expertise in utility safety. The new board chairwoman is Nora Mead Brownell, a former commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

But its board also includes several executives from the world of finance, causing Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials to accuse the company of putting profits ahead of safety. Among the directors are Richard Barrera, founder of New York hedge fund Roystone Capital Management; Kenneth Liang, a former managing director with Los Angeles investment firm Oaktree Capital Management; and Eric Mullins, co-CEO of Lime Rock Resources, an energy-investment firm based in Houston.