PUC record reform bill sails through Senate Judiciary Committee

A bill supported by CNPA that would make it easier for requesters to file legal challenges when the California Public Utilities Commission denies requests for information from journalists and members of the public was unanimously passed this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 6-0 vote.

SB 19 by Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) would allow, among other things, an action to enforce the requirements of the California Public Records Act (CPRA) to be filed in superior court rather than in an appellate court or the state Supreme Court.

Under existing law, when a requester wants to legally challenge the denial of a request by the PUC he or she must do so by filing a petition for writ of mandamus in the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal.

The filing requirement is found in California Public Utilities Code Section 1759 (enacted in 1911 before the Public Records Act was created) which provides the Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeal with exclusive jurisdiction over any order or decision of the commission or any action to enjoin, restrain, or interfere with the commission in the performance of its official duties, as provided by law and the rules of court.

The practical result of Section 1759 is that anyone wishing to enforce a violation of the CPRA must file in San Francisco or Los Angeles for the matter to be heard by the Supreme Court or in one of the six cities in which the Courts of Appeals is located.

The impetus for SB 19 is the lack of information available from the CPUC about the deadly pipeline explosions that killed residents in the San Bruno and Rancho Cordova neighborhoods. Journalists and residents who sought answers from the CPUC after the incidents were investigated have been continually stonewalled by the Commission.

Only six other states have the same level of secrecy that extends to accident information, safety reports and inspection records.

SB 19 will be heard next by the Senate Appropriations Committee in late April.