Public Utilities Commission invokes antiquated law to evade public access

The San Onofre nuclear plant in 2012.
The San Onofre nuclear plant in 2012. ZUMA24.com

The California Public Utilities Commission is acting as if it were 1912, a simpler time, before email was invented, the Public Records Act became law, and before some ratepayers got saddled with a $3.3 billion bill.

The commission, created by a constitutional amendment that sought to rein in robber barons and the railroads 113 years ago, is refusing to release emails possibly showing Gov. Jerry Brown’s level of involvement in the commission’s handling of the 2012 closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

The commission ruled last year that Southern California ratepayers should pay $3.3 billion, or 70 percent, of the $4.7 billion cost of shuttering San Onofre, with Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric paying the remainder.

As Edison since has acknowledged, then-Commission President Michael Peevey sought to work out some details of the deal with a utility executive during an unseemly private meeting in 2014 in Warsaw, Poland. Peevey later resigned.

San Diego attorney Mike Aguirre, suing on behalf of ratepayers, is seeking reams of documents, including about 130 emails back and forth among Brown’s aides and commission officials including Michael Picker, Brown’s appointee to replace Peevey as commission president.

“There’s something about this that just doesn’t sound right about stonewalling public information like this,” San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith said, urging the commission to turn over the documents last month, as recounted by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Commission lawyers argue the emails are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act. The attorneys also say that by law, only a California Court of Appeal or the state Supreme Court, and not a Superior Court, has jurisdiction over a commission decision to withhold the records. They’re probably right.

Earlier this year, the Legislature approved bills by Sen. Jerry Hill, a Peninsula Democrat, and incoming Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Los Angeles Democrat, that would have required the commission to defend any Public Records Act denials in Superior Court.

Brown vetoed the bills, contending they would “only result in increased litigation and likely delay commission decision-making.” In other words, our governor was harkening back to a simpler time before the Public Records Act existed.

But the San Onofre deal was hardly simple. It involved secretive meetings in a Warsaw hotel and a $4.7 billion settlement, 70 percent of which must be paid by ratepayers. The commission needs to make all the records about that deal public, and Brown should encourage legislators to send him new legislation that would force the commission into the 21st century.