SAN BRUNO -- The city of San Bruno, site of a deadly natural gas explosion caused by PG&E, on Tuesday sued the state Public Utilities Commission to force the release of documents that the city says will shed light on what it describes as a cozy relationship between the regulatory agency and the giant utility it oversees.
The lawsuit, filed in San Mateo County Superior Court, demands that the PUC comply with the California Public Records Act and four separate requests for documents related to the PUC's deliberations over the fine it will impose on Pacific Gas & Electric for the fatal gas explosion in 2010, the city said.
"We believe the PUC is deliberately withholding information that would embarrass the agency," said San Bruno City Manager Connie Jackson. "This is an issue of accountability and transparency."
San Bruno officials say the documents will show improper conduct at the PUC regarding the nature and the amount of the fine, which has not yet been imposed.
"What we are seeing is a cover-up," said state Sen. Jerry Hill, an outspoken critic of the PUC and PG&E and a leader in legislative efforts to improve the safety of PG&E's natural gas system and the PUC's regulatory process. "The PUC will go to great lengths to protect itself."
San Bruno is particularly interested in a series of communications among PUC Executive Director Paul Clanon and two administrative law judges. City officials claim the messages will show that the PUC staff improperly attempted to influence the deliberations of the judges, who are serving as hearing officers for the PG&E fine proceeding.
"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. "Our lawsuit calls for full transparency so that the people of San Bruno and the citizens of California can be confident about the integrity of this long penalty process against PG&E."
The PUC said it's reviewing the lawsuit and would respond through the court process as appropriate.
"We have already replied to several extensive records requests by the City of San Bruno," said Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the PUC. "We will continue to utilize our resources to evaluate and complete our responses."
The PUC's primary focus is to complete the necessary work to determine the amount and nature of the fine against PG&E as the utility's punishment for the explosion.
"This is a matter between the city of San Bruno and the PUC and all questions should be directed to them," said PG&E spokeswoman Brittany Chord.
San Bruno City Attorney Marc Zafferano complained that, "Ten months after making a series of simple public records requests, the CPUC has refused to comply, leading us to question what the agency is trying to hide."
Officials with The Utility Reform Network, a consumer group, said the PUC has maintained a cozy relationship with PG&E for far too long. Investigators have determined that PG&E's shoddy record keeping and faulty maintenance, combined with the PUC's uneven regulation of the utility, coalesced to trigger the San Bruno explosion.
"We can understand San Bruno's frustration," said Mindy Spatt, a TURN spokeswoman. "The PUC not only is lax in its oversight of PG&E, but at times, the PUC almost seems frightened of PG&E."
Contact George Avalos at 408-859-5167. Follow at Twitter.com/georgeavalos.