A law enacted more than a century ago to curb corruption from railroad barons is now being used by the California Utilities Commission to evade public records requests and shirk the agency’s responsibility to voters.
Drafted in response to concerns over the influence of the Southern Pacific Railroad during the 1910’s, the Public Utilities Code provides the agency with a far greater level of independence than most state agencies. Today the commission employs more than 1000 workers and maintains a budget of $1.1 billion.
The Utilities Code restricts public employees from releasing confidential information submitted by a utility, unless ordered to by the commission, by making them guilty of a misdemeanor charge. This legal hurdle actually creates an opportunity for the Commission to broadly avoid giving over public records.
The commission has a history of unreasonable delays and excuses that make public records requests from the organization highly challenging. Between January of 2017 and April 2022, the average request for agency records took 58 days with several requests taking between six and 27 months.
Normally, when a request for records is denied the requester may seek independent arbitration in a court of law, but at the commission things work differently. The commission allows just a 10-day window for a requester to file an appeal, or they lose their right to make an appeal! Compare this to the 90-day period allowed by the Federal Freedom of Information Act.
With most state agencies, an appeal can be filed in a local superior court, but with the Utilities Commission an appeal must be filed in the state appeals or even supreme court. This makes for a far more difficult and costly process that deters most applicants.
The level of arrogance being demonstrated by the California Utilities Commission flies directly in the face of our state constitution which guarantees every Californian’s right to public records.
The fight against the PUC is already in motion. Following an explosion in 2010, the City of San Bruno began a lengthy legal battle against the commission which began to bring attention to the commission’s ridiculous policies.
While the city of San Bruno eventually lost their battle due to the Utilities Code’s ban on suing in superior court, it at least achieved a settlement.
Since then, there have been more and more stories of the commission skirting its constitutional duty by hiding behind a century-old law. If transparency in California is to be maintained, this agency must be called out on its policies or other state organizations will follow their example.