Governor Brown’s two new nominees to the California Public Utilities Commission won a confirmation vote in a legislative committee after pledging to make the body’s information on regulated utilities more accessible to the public, reports Jaxon Van Derbeken for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Two members of the California Public Utilities Commission pledged Wednesday to ease confidentiality rules and make the agency more accountable to the public.
Commission members Mike Florio and Catherine Sandoval, named to the panel in January 2011 by Gov. Jerry Brown, testified in confirmation hearings before the state Senate Rules Committee that they were committed to making more information available regarding the commission’s oversight of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and other utilities.
“We already have a team at work to reformulate this, to establish categories of information that will be automatically be made public,” Florio told committee Chairman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the Senate’s president pro tem.
Steinberg cited a Chronicle story in November that identified the state’s secrecy provisions for utility regulation as being among the strictest in the nation. Under California law, utility records are confidential unless the five-member utilities commission approves their release.
State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, has introduced legislation to repeal the secrecy provision and put the commission’s disclosure guidelines under the California Public Records Act.
Florio explained that the confidentiality rule was intended to “facilitate the movement of these mountains of information” between utilities and the agency. In practice, however, the provision is overly restrictive, he said.
Florio said “there’s a lot more that we could do” in “flipping that presumption for the vast majority of that information.”
Sandoval said the commission’s “over-classification of materials” was a problem. “Disclosure is one of the fundamental ways that we create light and that we create understanding,” she said.
Yee and other critics of the current law say revelations that PG&E had incomplete and misleading documents about the pipeline that exploded in September 2010 in San Bruno, and the commission’s failure to police the company beforehand, made repealing the secrecy provision all the more urgent.
Both Florio and Sandoval said PG&E has started to strengthen its safety culture but still has more to do. They said the commission is beefing up its enforcement efforts as well, but continues to rely largely on utilities to police themselves.
Both praised PG&E for its recent revelation that it had failed to perform required leak surveys on nearly 14 miles of its gas distribution system in eastern Contra Costa County because the pipeline systems were not included in leak survey maps. PG&E workers brought the problem to their supervisors’ attention.
“The recent honoring of employees is a great example of the cultural change we wanted to see,” Florio said. “It is entirely possible that two years ago those individuals would have been disciplined for what they did, and now they are being praised. That’s a tremendous change for the better.”
He said the commission’s job was to make sure safety doesn’t “slip back” to being the “afterthought it was” before the San Bruno disaster.
Sandoval stressed that the commission needs to step up its safety auditing of PG&E.
“I’m very concerned about these many instances where PG&E has now found inaccuracies … missing maps, things they didn’t inspect that they were supposed to inspect every five years,” Sandoval said.
“If there is good news,” she said, “I think they are searching. They are trying to come clean.”
At the end of the hearing, the Rules Committee voted unanimously to confirm Florio and Sandoval and sent their nominations to the full Senate.