California utilities agency must obey Public Records Act

In a broad victory for government transparency, an appeals court ruled that the California Public Utilities Commission must comply with state law that requires all agencies to promptly release information. to the public.

In a unanimous decision issued Friday, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the commission’s lengthy and open-ended administrative proceedings violated time strictness of the California Public Records Act.

Supporters say the ruling could bring more accountability to the committee, which has drawn criticism for its excessive secrecy and inefficiency. It regulates corporations ranging from utilities to ride-hailing services.

The Commission has announced that a centuries-old law – aimed at preventing abuse by litigation by regulations against railroad tycoons – requires those who request records to go through a criminal process. complicated policy before they can sue the agency to make the records public.

Citing that section of the Public Utilities Code, the agency has for years blocked record requests for its handling of disasters like the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Camp fire, the San nuclear power plant, and the Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s Camp fire. Onofre is broken and thousands of collisions and assaults. on Uber and Lyft rides.

But the court completely rejected the agency’s argument, arguing that the procedures set forth in the utility code “do not apply to PRA,” or the Public Records Act.

“[T]His procedural plan, and in particular the hearing process, set forth in the Public Utilities Code is not only radically different from, but also contrary to, the procedural provisions of the PRA and the intent of the Agency. legislation in enacting them,” the court said.

More broadly, the court said “any” administrative processes that state and local agencies take to process requests for records “must comply with the language and intent of the PRA. ” It said, if the agencies did not complete their internal review within the records act’s deadline, the claimant could ask the court to review it without further delay.

But the court also held that the specific records requested in this case – correspondence between the commission and the governor’s office regarding the devastating fire of 2018 – were confidential and did not need to be disclosed.

Citing previous reports of similar filings, the court said disclosing the governor’s correspondence with the committee would impede government officials’ ability to speak frankly.

David Snyder, executive director of First Amendment Coalition, a nonpartisan organization that advocates government transparency, said that although the court found the governor’s correspondence to be confidential, the ruling was a important step.

“This decision is really a win for transparency,” said Snyder, whose organization partnered with the Associated Press and the Center for Investigative Reporting to support the lawsuit. They filed a brief in the case saying the commission had a history of “unlawful delays” in responding to requests.

“The court has made it clear that the administrative procedures of an agency cannot exceed that of the Public Records Act and that an agency like PUC cannot indefinitely delay the processing of a public records request. ,” Snyder said.

Terrie Prosper, the commission’s director of news and outreach, and Christofer Nolan, the attorney representing the agency in the case, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Steve Zansberg, the Denver attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of ABC-10 television in Sacramento and its correspondent Brandon Rittiman, said his clients are pleased that the decision will make it easy for everyone. seek further court review in the event of a delay by the agency. or refuse their request.

“No one has to wait, nor do my clients, months to be able to ask the court to review the agency’s decision to deny access to records,” he said in a statement.

As the court put it, “The delay occurring here is serious by any measure.”

On November 19, 2020, Rittiman requested copies of communications between Marybel Batjer, the committee chair at the time, and Governor Gavin Newsom’s office regarding the Camp Fire. The Butte County fire destroyed 18,000 structures and killed at least 85 people. PG&E pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of causing a fire.

Rittiman is investigating why the agency exempted PG&E from the $200 million fine and whether the governor’s office influenced that decision.

The agency said the records are confidential; Rittiman filed an administrative appeal. When seven months passed and the agency failed to make a decision, Rittiman sued, the court noted.

The agency later sought to dismiss his case because he had not yet completed administrative proceedings, but the state’s Supreme Court requested a review.

The Commission has long asserted that claimants cannot sue it for non-compliance with the PRA until they have undergone two internal administrative appeals of their request. On the legal basis, the agency invokes a 100-year-old law aimed at preventing abuse lawsuits for railway interests.

But as the lawsuit notes, the agency’s appeals system does not set a deadline, allowing it to indefinitely delay decisions on whether to release records, despite PRA requests that the parties have not made. decision agency within 24 days. In this way, the agency prevented people from asking the court to independently review their cases, even if their requests were not accepted at the agency.

Enacted in 1968, the California Public Records Act was modeled on the federal Freedom of Information Act. State law states that “people’s right to information relating to business activities is a fundamental and necessary right.”

It said all state agencies “will” determine whether the requested records are viable within 24 days, immediately notify the requester and “rapidly” release them. According to them, if the agency withholds the record, the petitioner can ask the court to review it “at the earliest possible time”.

Voters strengthened the law in 2004 when they overwhelmingly passed Proposition 59, which contained similar words in the state Constitution.

The commission also derived from a constitutional amendment that was supported by voters. The agency was founded in 1879 as the Railroad Commission but was corrupted by the South Pacific Railroad, according to a history written by the Commission’s employees. In 1911, voters following Governor Hiram Johnson’s reform platform granted the agency greater autonomy with the intention of insulating it from undue influence. Its powers were extended to other utilities, and in 1946 it was renamed.

The agency is led by five commissioners appointed by the governor for six-year terms. They oversee 1,402 employees and a $1.1 billion budget.

The committee’s policy on records requests – known as General Order 66-D – states that claimants must complete an internal administrative review before they can request a judicial review of their custody. agency records.

But the court concluded that just as the Legislature used its “whole” power to pass public utility legislation of the early 20th century, it used the same authority. in 1968 to pass the Records Act, which was clearly intended for the Commission.

The court stated that the “PRA overcomes limitations” of the commission’s authority to apply internal procedures to records requests. The agency’s open-ended process, it said, “cannot be squared” with the much tighter timeframe of filing action.

“In short, the PRA calls for the judicious treatment of records requests and the resolution of disputes over such requests,” the panel said, and allows claimants to bring lawsuits to enforce the act. .

Snyder of the First Amendment Coalition said: “The PUC has been operating for many, many years in a black box. “The public has not had much access to its inner workings. Hopefully this opens the door, at least a little bit, to more transparency and thus greater accountability to the Public Utilities Commission. ”

Seth Rosenfeld writes for the San Francisco Public Press, an independent nonprofit that produces investigative and solution journalism. For more of its coverage on the subject, see The Dark Data of Ride Hailing. This story was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York. Support also comes from the Investigative Journalism Foundation. California utilities agency must obey Public Records Act

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