Reforms to CA Public Utility Agency Signed

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Ending a barrage of legislative proposals aimed at California’s troubled utility regulator and its botched handling of several high-profile disasters, Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday approved major changes to the California Public Utilities Commission.
     The reform package includes enhanced ex parte communication rules for commissioners, new performance standards for the commission and its executive director and guidelines for the attorney general to bring enforcement actions against commission employees.
     “These important reforms cannot wait another year. To that end, I am calling upon the commission to use its existing authority to take immediate action,” Brown said in a signing message. “Together, these administrative reforms and legislative acts will bring much needed improvement to the commission.”
     Brown inked the reform package one week after a state audit derided the regulator’s poor decision-making and failure to disclose private communications between commissioners and utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric.
     State lawmakers have been pushing for sweeping reforms of the embattled commission in the wake of its handling of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline disaster and the controversial closing of a Southern California nuclear power plant.
     Former commission president Michael Peevey stepped down after accusations surfaced that he arranged a secret deal with utility executives to pass on billions of the San Onofre power plant’s closing costs to Southern California Edison ratepayers. Edison was eventually fined $16.7 million by the commission for covering up the ex parte communications.
     Brown on Thursday called on the commission to go further and “take immediate action” on a host of administrative and transparency issues not included in the legislature’s bills. He urged the commission to adopt an ombudsman to ensure ethics compliance and said it should streamline its California Public Records Act procedures.
     The commission is responsible for monitoring the state’s railroads and passenger transportation companies as well as utilities. Commissioners are currently appointed by the governor.
     A more in-depth commission reform package was dismissed by lawmakers earlier this month. Assembly Bill 2903 by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Burbank, would have required the commission to appoint an internal auditor and shift certain transportation responsibilities to other state agencies. Gatto’s proposal failed to be taken up before a legislative deadline.
     Gatto hawked the commission for its transparency flaws all year and even proposed dismantling the regulator altogether. He accused the commission of “being in bed” with the utilities it’s supposed to be overseeing following the Porter Ranch gas leak in Southern California.
     While Brown came down hard on the commission Thursday, he vetoed a series of similar reform measures in 2015.
     He said the six commission bills passed by lawmakers in 2015 were important but “technical” and “unworkable.” The previously vetoed bills included allowing Californians to sue the commission for withholding information from public records requests and a bill banning back-channel communications.
     The newly approved reforms also require the commission to rotate public hearings across the state and provide quicker public access to hearing transcripts.
     State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, applauded Brown for signing the commission reforms but reiterated there needs to be more legislative proposals down the road.
     “We all must strive to ensure these problems are addressed, and I will work to make sure that the remaining reform provisions are implemented when the legislature reconvenes in December,” Hill said in a statement.

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