COMMITTEES APPROVE OPEN GOVERNMENT BILLS

Legislation brings sunshine to CPUC records, stops revolving door at commission, creates open data standard

SACRAMENTO – Today, two Senate committees approved three bills authored by Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) to increase transparency and accountability of government.

Disclosing safety records and other public documents

On a 7-4 vote, the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications approved SB 1000 to ensure the public release of all accident reports that are filed with the CPUC or generated by the commission.

The bill would also require the CPUC to revise its rules and regulations related to public access of records as well as make improvements on the commission’s website to ensure greater transparency of investigations, tests, and other reports.

“Californians have a fundamental right to know how their government is working,” said Yee. “SB 1000 ensures that members of public have access to safety-related documents that affect their families.”

Several media outlets have documented numerous instances of the CPUC denying public access to safety reports, audits, and other public information and in one case even destroying a report detailing a natural gas explosion that resulted in the death of a San Francisco firefighter.

Most documents at the CPUC are shielded by a secrecy statute passed in 1951 and a Commission rule adopted in the mid-1970s.  The policy has been costly. 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.

“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,” said Yee. “The CPUC is supposed to be there to protect us and not act as a barrier to public access.”

“SB 1000 will enable the public to better understand the safety risks that exist in their neighborhoods and better protect themselves,” said Jim Ewert, General Counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

“The utility industries conduct some of the costliest and potentially the most dangerous enterprises in the economy,” said Terry Francke, General Counsel for Californians Aware. “They simply cannot be regulated in the public interest if the public cannot monitor their activities.”

“Fox guarding the hen house”

Since the San Bruno disaster, consumer advocates, legislators, and others have questioned the cozy relationship between many CPUC executives and the top brass at many of the utility companies and whether or not the CPUC was properly fulfilling their responsibility to protect the public.

On a 7-6 vote, the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications approved SB 981 to prohibit a former CPUC commissioner or executive from lobbying the commission for two years after leaving the CPUC.  The bill would have also prohibited an executive employee of a regulated utility company from serving on or working for the CPUC for a period of two years.

“We need to stop the fox from guarding the hen house,” said Yee. “Enough is enough of this cozy relationship between the utilities and the state entity charged with protecting consumers.”

“The public is not served when utility executives are able to game the system from inside the Public Utilities Commission,” said Phillip Ung, Policy Advocate for California Common Cause. “This revolving door must be shuttered to prevent corruption and protect Californians.”

Allowing greater access to public records

On a 3-0 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved SB 1002 to provide greater access to government records, specifically requiring public documents and data that are electronically available to be user-friendly and searchable by commonly used software.

Often when government agencies post electronic records online or provide electronic copies of documents in response to a public records request, the data provided is simply a scanned graphic image file that is not searchable or able to be sorted, even though the agency has the file in a searchable format.

Under Yee’s bill, such electronic documents would need to be produced in an open source file, word processing document, spreadsheet, native database, or other format in which keywords or other data fields could be easily searched using commonly used software, which is often the format internally used by the public agency.

“Producing a 2,000 page electronic document that cannot be searched or sorted is inadequate and almost useless,” said Yee. “For too long, many government agencies – either by choice or inertia – have been living in the Stone Age when it comes to producing public documents. This bill will not only bring public agencies into the 21st Century, but will ensure greater transparency and accountability.”

“California agencies and its citizens are one step closer to realizing the benefits of Open Data, including reduced IT costs and the development of next generation applications that will increase civic engagement and enhance public safety,” said David Cruise, Director, Association of Public Safety Communication Officials.

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Contact: Adam J. Keigwin,
(916) 651-4008