Public Records Bill Buried by the Legislature

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The San Francisco Chronicle hit a wall last year when it went hunting for documents at the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) as part of an investigation of dangerous pipelines owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) that were running beneath Bay Area neighborhoods.

A 60-year-old state law made the documents, which are routinely available in other states, off-limits in California unless the PUC votes to release them. A review of PUC procedures by the newspaper showed that the agency regularly consulted utilities before making any public disclosures.

The law was a significant impediment to non-governmental investigations of PG&E following the 2010 San Bruno natural-gas explosion that killed eight people and razed a neighborhood, prompting lawmakers in Sacramento to introduce legislation that would address the matter.

Last week, a bill that would have required the PUC to release information about accidents involving public utilities died in committee. Assembly Bill 1541 would have extended the existing California Public Records Act to the PUC.

The Act “requires any public record of a state or local agency to be open to inspection at all times during office hours of the agency and, upon request, a copy shall be made promptly available to any person upon payment of copying costs.” But it gives the commission a special dispensation and authorizes it to establish its own procedures under the Public Utilities Act.

A similar initiative to open up the PUC was spearheaded by then-Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (now Secretary of State) in 2006. It went nowhere. At the time, PUC President Michael Peevey pledged to undertake an internal review of agency transparency, but there were no visible results.

The PUC is reportedly again working on its own open access regulation that would operate with the presumption that documents should be released unless there are compelling objections raised by a utility concerning confidentiality.

The commission is also working on a database that would show the results of PUC investigations, including requests by utilities to keep them secret.   

AB 1541 was introduced by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson in January, passed the Assembly 76-0 and flew through the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee and the Judicial Committee before ending up pigeon-holed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

It is the second such bill to die in the Legislature this year. After Senate Bill 1000 went down to defeat in June, Southern California Edison Co. noted its fear that erroneous media reports and lawsuits could undermine “full and candid dialogue between a utility and the CPUC at a critical early stage of a serious accident.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Assembly Bill on Utility Accidents Dies (by Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle)

Assembly Bill 1541 (California Legislative Information)

Law Allows State PUC to Keep Utilities Data Secret (by Eric Nalder and Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle)

CPUC Transparency Bill Dies in Assembly  (San Bruno Patch)

More Backroom Policy Talks with the California Public Utilities Commission (by Rebecca Bowe, San Francisco Bay Guardian)

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