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California Regulators Settle with San Bruno Over Records Dispute

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Friday said it had reached a settlement with the City of San Bruno, CA, over a Public Records Act lawsuit the city launched early this year, alleging the state regulators were withholding documents related to the aftermath of the horrific 2010 natural gas transmission pipeline rupture and explosion in the suburb 10 miles south of San Francisco.

The agreement settles with prejudice five separate public records requests from the city to the CPUC between May 2013 and January 2014. Earlier this year, San Bruno filed a complaint in San Francisco County Superior Court alleging violations of the state's public records law (see Daily GPI, Feb. 5). The city now is dismissing its lawsuit with prejudice and waiving any claims for costs and attorneys' fees, the CPUC said.

"The CPUC has produced documents that it intended to release prior to the filing of the city's complaint, but had not yet done so by the time of the filing," a CPUC spokesperson said.

As part of the settlement, the CPUC has agreed to accelerate several steps to make access to safety documents more transparent and readily available. Regulators before the end of the year will amend the commission general order on public access to records, and the CPUC will update its web page regarding the public's ability to obtain public records.

"The idea is to provide easier access to the many records already available on the CPUC website," the spokesperson said

CPUC interim General Counsel Karen Clopton reiterated the regulatory panel's commitment to facilitating access to records requested under the state public records laws. Clopton said the delays in the case of San Bruno's past requests were caused by what she called "the breath of the requests, the volume of records to be located and reviewed, and the limited availability of staff resources to conduct a comprehensive search and review.

"There are many records on the CPUC website in our commitment to transparency and public accessibility, and we are always striving to improve navigation of the vast amount of information available."

Clopton assured that in the wake of the settlement the CPUC will upgrade everything to better assist the public in finding the records electronically available.

 In addition to the public records act allegations, San Bruno's lawsuit, alleged "improper contact" and a "cozy relationship" between the CPUC and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), whose natural gas transmission pipeline ruptured causing an explosion and fire that killed eight people in 2010.

San Bruno attorneys claimed that all of the information being sought by the city is related to the ongoing process by regulators to determine PG&E's penalties for the pipeline explosion and fire. A proposed decision is expected from a CPUC administrative law judge (ALJ) regarding the penalty.

But the legal wrangling between CPUC and the city continues. On Monday, San Bruno officials said they plan to file a new motion in state court alleging violations of state law regulating the arms-length relationship between the governor-appointed state regulators and the companies they regulate.

San Bruno's upcoming court filing will allege ex parte contact violations and seek recusal of long-time CPUC President Michael Peevey from the upcoming decision on the pending penalty cases resulting for the September 2010 pipeline failure.

"The CPUC takes seriously all allegations of bias and rule violations and will evaluate the motions when filed by the City of San Bruno, including providing an opportunity for parties to comment," a CPUC spokesperson said.

While not commenting on the move to keep Peevey from being involved, the spokesperson said the regulatory commission "remains focused" on getting penalty recommendations from a pair of assigned ALJs. At the same time, the CPUC remains focused on "improving safety in all of the industries it regulates."

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