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Calif. Gov. Brown signs bills overhauling oversight of PUC

California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation tobolster transparency, accountability and oversight at the Public UtilitiesCommission, but he said more must still be done to reform the troubled agency.

With Brown's Sept. 29 signing of the reform bills, thegovernor carried through on some of the measures he and legislative leadersannounced earlierthis year. But he said that while the Legislature passed many of these proposed reforms, it failed to acton other key legislation.

For that reason, he called on the commission to takeimmediate action on additional reforms using its existing authority. The PUCshould appoint an ethics ombudsman and establish a web portal for the publicadvisor to receive public complaints and comments, the governor said.

The commission should also create a streamlined process formore quickly releasing information to the public, improve coordination withother state agencies and departments, increase the commission's presenceoutside its San Francisco central offices and work with the California ResearchBureau to study the governance of telecommunications service, Brown continued.

"Together, these administrative reforms and legislativeacts will bring much needed improvement to the Commission," Brown said.

The signed bills, including Senate Bill 215 by state Sen.Mark Leno and S.B. 512 by state Sen. Jerry Hill, enact extensive reforms tohelp open and expand public participation in commission proceedings, improvesafety and reform ex parte communications rules, he said. The bills were passedamid accusations andscandal concerning major cases involving the PG&E Corp. subsidiary 's SanBruno pipeline explosion and the forced closure of Edison International subsidiary 's SanOnofre Generating Station.

New ex parte reforms require commissioners and interestedparties to disclose and promptly post the content of ex parte communicationsonline in rate-setting proceedings. S.B. 215 authorizes the California AttorneyGeneral to bring enforcement action in superior court against anydecision-maker or employee of the commission who violates the ex partecommunications rules.

Other legislation creates performance criteria for thecommission and its executive director, increases availability of documents,requires commission voting meetings to be held in various regions of the state,makes administrative records more open in quasi-legislative proceedings andestablishes thresholds for the reasonable and timely resolution of proceedings.

The governor also signed S.B. 62, authored by Hill, tocreate the Office ofthe Safety Advocate within the commission and S.B. 661 by Hill to increaseoversight and enforcement of excavation safety requirements around utilitiesand related safety laws.

The bills signed also include by Assembly MemberDas Williams concerning audit compliance. The new law requires the PUC torequire public utilities to record all related costs and revenues in balancingaccounts, except for certain exemptions, and requires reports of these accountsto the legislature. The new law also requires the PUC to post reports onutility inspections and audits on its Internet site.

A balancing account is a tracking mechanism used to ensure autility recoups from ratepayers any costs the PUC has authorized. The balancingaccount also is designed to ensure ratepayers do not pay more than they should.

The PUC has come under fire repeatedly for shortcomings andfailings in its regulatory practices. A recent state audit the commission's ability asan impartial regulator. A federal audit found in the PUC's recordkeeping. Legislators have accused the PUC of being lax on utility safetyrequirements. An independent investigation found utilities undue influence through ex partemeetings and communications.