The California Public Utilities Commission on Monday proposed opening up public access to most records under the agency’s purview, a dramatic shift that would allow Californians to view documents detailing the safety records of natural-gas pipelines running under their neighborhoods.
The move comes 18 months after the explosion of a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline in San Bruno that killed eight people, and four months after a Chronicle investigation revealed that the vast majority of documents at the commission are barred from public access, including investigation reports on natural-gas pipeline accidents and safety audits of utilities such as PG&E.
The practice of shielding documents from public view spawned criticism by victims of the explosion and others, and prompted Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, to write a bill requiring such disclosure.
On Monday, Yee called the utilities commission’s proposal a “good first step.”
Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the proposed change would improve public access to records. “The public should have the widest possible access to information we possess,” she said.
In a written statement, the commission added that its public access regulations are “outdated and cumbersome, and often delay rather than facilitate access to records requested.”
A 60-page draft resolution, which the five members of the utilities commission will vote on in May, would change the agency’s rules to make documents publicly available unless a utility can show why the records should be hidden from view.
Currently, regulations require a vote of the commission before any unreleased paperwork may be made public – a vote that comes after the panel consults with utilities.
The proposal calls for automatically disclosing the outcomes of safety-related investigations and creating an online index of the commission’s available records and an online “safety portal” that houses all safety-related records.
California law now exempts the utilities commission from the state’s public records law, a contrast to other states, where such documents are routinely available.
Yee said the commission’s announcement is a good starting place but that his proposal, SB1000, should still move forward.
That legislation would repeal a 1951 state law exempting the agency from the state’s Public Records Act unless the commissioners vote to allow public access to specific documents.
“The fact that CPUC is willing to do much more than they are doing right now to be open and transparent – I think that’s a good thing,” Yee said. “But the best step is to support my bill and to pass it.”
To view the proposed regulations, go to: http://docs.cpuc.ca.gov/WORD_PDF/COMMENT_RESOLUTION/162152.pdf