CPUC secrecy subject of proposed legislation
November 29, 2011
• Would stop hiding of safety records, audits, and other public documents
• ‘We need to be vigilant in ensuring utility companies are not endangering our communities’
The California Public Utilities Commission would be yanked into the sunshine of the state’s Public Records Act under a bill being proposed by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.
The bill is prompted by a report in the San Francisco Chronicle that documents several instances of the CPUC denying public access to safety reports, audits, and other public information. The Chronicle reporting revealed that most documents at the CPUC are shielded by a secrecy statute passed in 1951 and a Commission rule adopted in the mid-1950s.
Unlike most states – as well as all other public agencies in California – CPUC keeps documents secret unless it votes to allow public access.
The CPUC policy has been costly, Mr. Yee says. Official accounts of 34 of the 42 serious gas pipeline incident reports since 2006 are still not available for public review. Efforts to gain access to these documents have resulted in taxpayers footing the bill for expensive attorneys and delays, he says.
The secrecy statute was also used in 2005 to prevent public disclosure of records regarding gas pipeline accidents to KNBC, a Los Angeles television station. And despite the 2010 San Bruno Pacific Gas & Electric Company natural gas pipeline explosion in September 2010, the same statute is still being used to prevent public access by Californians concerned about dangerous pipelines running underneath their neighborhoods, Mr. Yee says.
That explosion killed eight people and leveled 38 homes.
The Chronicle also documented a case in which the CPUC destroyed a 1963 report detailing a natural gas explosion that resulted in the death of a San Francisco firefighter.
Compounding the lack of disclosure, the lawmaker says, the CPUC often allows private utility companies to determine whether information is open or confidential – a practice that is specifically outlawed for all other state and local agencies as a result of a 2008 law (SB 1696) also authored by Mr. Yee.
“Californians have a fundamental right to know how their government is working,” says Mr. Yee. “As taxpayers, they should have full access to all documents and information that affects them and their families.”
“If the San Bruno disaster has taught us anything, it is that we need to be vigilant in ensuring utility companies are not endangering our communities,” he says. “The CPUC is supposed to be there to protect us and not as a barrier to public access.”
In 2004, then Senator and now Secretary of State Debra Bowen attempted a similar bill, which was killed in the Assembly by the utility companies, Mr. Yee’s office says. She told the Chronicle, “with the memory of the San Bruno disaster fresh in the public’s mind, this is a ‘great time’ to try again.”
“The utility industries conduct some of the costliest and potentially the most dangerous enterprises in the economy,” says Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware. “They simply cannot be regulated in the public interest if the public cannot monitor their activities.”