Thomas Elias: Secret meetings key to California’s energy, air, water choices
Many of California’s vital energy, water and air quality decisions of the last few years may have been made in secret meetings involving Gov. Jerry Brown’s office and his appointed heads of key state agencies.
That revelation emerges from previously withheld emails released by the California Public Utilities Commission in response to a court order obtained by a San Diego consumer attorney who has fought some of its most important rulings.
The released emails cover several months in 2014, and some remain undisclosed, but there are no denials of the secret meetings from anyone in state government, and they apparently continue.
There is disagreement about whether these sessions violate California’s open meetings law, designed to ensure decisions are made in full public view.
The gatherings include aides to the governor and the heads of the PUC, the state Energy Commission, the state Air Resources Board, the state Water Resources Control Board and board members of the Independent System Operator, in charge of California’s electric grid.
The emails also strikingly reveal that the top regulators meet frequently in private with high executives of major utilities they regulate. Meetings sometimes include division chiefs with the state agencies.
The group, calling itself the Energy Principals, also meets with executives and officials of renewable energy companies like those building huge solar thermal energy plants in the state’s vast deserts. But there is no indication consumer groups or their representatives have ever been included.
Subject matter for meetings during the relatively short time period covered by the court order included an infamous and since-revised agreement reached in a secret 2013 meeting in Warsaw, Poland, between then-PUC President Michael Peevey and the Southern California Edison Co. That deal, summarized by Peevey on a hotel napkin, assessed consumers about 70 percent of the almost $5 billion cost for closing the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
Other topics included renewable energy issues and “peaker” electricity plants used only during power shortages.
There is no evidence any decisions reached by the Energy Principals group were ever changed by any state agency involved.
“Essentially, they’ve collapsed the four big energy and water agencies into a single group organized out of the governor’s office,” said Michael Aguirre, the former elected city attorney of San Diego whose demands produced the previously-secret emails. “I’ve sent letters demanding they give public notice of these meetings.”
Some meetings during the time period covered by the emails were held in Peevey’s house in the posh Los Angeles suburb of La Canada-Flintridge and in the home of air board chair Mary Nichols in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles.
The PUC was the only agency commenting on the meetings, with spokeswoman Terrie Prosper implying in an email that the Energy Principals group still meets regularly. “Discussions among the leaders of various agencies must occur … to ensure the state properly manages resources and considers the needs of California,” she said in an email.
And a spokesman for Brown told a reporter that “It’s a basic function of government for agencies to work cooperatively.”
Prosper insisted public notice of the meetings is not required under California’s open meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.
But a 2003 public analysis of the Brown Act by then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer found the law covers “standing committees of a legislative body.” Agencies like those in the Energy Principals group have long been considered legislative bodies under the Brown Act and do give advance notice of meetings. It’s difficult to see how a group of agency heads that has met regularly for years would not be called a “standing committee.”
But Prosper defended the group’s secrecy by saying “There was never a quorum of PUC members present.”
“One question this brings up is how broad is the practice of secret meetings?” said Aguirre. “There is no way these meetings should be held in secret.”
But they have been, and no one knows how long that’s gone on. The bottom line: Agency heads should indeed meet and coordinate their actions, but from now on, they need to do it publicly and provide plenty of advance notice, as the law seems to require.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to http://www.californiafocus.net
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