San Bruno files suit against CPUC to acquire documents related to 2010 pipeline blast 

click to enlarge PG&E pipeline
  • Eric Risberg/2010 AP file photo
  • A lawsuit filed by San Bruno says the CPUC has failed to turn over documents requested in a timely manner. The CPUC allegedly said it would respond when it had time to do so.
The city of San Bruno filed a lawsuit against the California Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday in an attempt to obtain documentation on the relationship between the utility regulator and PG&E Co. prior to a 2010 pipeline explosion that left eight residents dead and 66 injured.

“We are concerned the leadership of the CPUC is in the pocket of the utility company it is supposed to regulate,” San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane said.

San Bruno officials requested records of CPUC’s relationship with PG&E more than 10 months ago under the California Public Records Act, which requires state agencies to respond to requests within a 10-day period. However, the lawsuit claims, CPUC failed to turn over documents in a timely manner — or, in some cases, ever — and often failed to respond within the 10-day period. Instead, according to the lawsuit, the commission claimed it would respond when employees had free time to do so.

The commission’s response “makes a mockery of the value of public participation within its own government,” according to the lawsuit.

The city’s relationship with the commission became increasingly testy during disputes over the fine PG&E would pay as penalty for the blast. CPUC initially argued that improvements made by PG&E should be deducted from its total fine, while the city pressed for hefty fines.

To prove its claim that CPUC tried to impose lax penalties on the utility, San Bruno officials sought internal e-mails and other documentation from the commission.

“More than two years ago, federal investigators identified the too-cozy relationship between PG&E and the CPUC,” said Marc Zafferano, San Bruno’s city attorney. “We believe these records are critical to demonstrating whether any real reform has occurred since that time.”

But the CPUC argues that it has the right to withhold the documents under the deliberative process privilege exemption of the Public Records Act. This exemption, imposed by the California Supreme Court in 1991, protects records that would reveal agency decision-making processes from disclosure. According to the Supreme Court decision, “the key question in every case is whether disclosure of the materials would expose an agency’s decision-making process in such a way as to discourage candid discussion with the agency and thereby undermine the agency’s ability to perform its functions.”

San Bruno’s lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions taken in response to the pipeline explosion.

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