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Proposed wildfire board could operate partly in secret

June 28, 2019
FILE - In this April 12, 2019 file photo, Gov. Gavin Newsom points to a graph showing the increased in the risk to wildfires due to climate change during a news conference in Rancho Cordova, Calif. A closely watched wildfire law proposed by Newsom would exempt a new safety board from some of the state's government transparency laws. The Wildfire Safety Advisory Board would make recommendations to officials at the state Public Utilities Commission. However, legislation unveiled late Thursday, June 27, would keep their communications privileged. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A closely watched wildfire law proposed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom would exempt a new safety board from some of the state’s government transparency laws.

The Wildfire Safety Advisory Board would advise the state’s utility regulator and help set the standards that electric utilities must follow to prevent wildfires, one of the state’s most pressing public safety issues. But its communications with the California Public Utilities Commission would be considered privileged and could be shielded from the public.

Meetings would still be open to the public, at least in part, and the board would have to set aside 20 minutes for comment from the public but it would not be subject to all the provisions of the state’s law on open meetings.

State law usually restricts communications between regulators and people with a stake in regulatory issues, but rules about so-called ex parte communications would not apply to the advisory board or its staff.

“It’s a historic reduction in transparency,” said Loretta Lynch, a former president of the Public Utilities Commission, describing the proposal as “pulling the Wizard of Oz’s curtain over a process that should be fully open to the public.”

Newsom said the bill is a work in progress and the state’s lawyers likely have a reason for how the board’s communications are structured.

“What you see today doesn’t necessarily suggest what you’ll see at the end of this two-week process,” he told The Associated Press, adding he’s committed to government transparency.

Newsom’s spokesman, Nathan Click, emailed shortly after to say the governor’s office would be working with the Legislature “to change the bill language in order to ensure transparency and that board actions be taken in public.” He added that “narrow exemptions may be included to allow the experts to work together on technical issues.”

Lawmakers still need to hold public hearings on the bill and have not committed to supporting every aspect of it. Newsom wants a deal by July 12, when lawmakers go home for a month-long summer break.

The proposal is part of a bigger plan to bring stability to electric utilities following devastating wildfires.

Some of the state’s worst wildfires have been caused by utility equipment, and the financial liabilities from those fires have threatened to destabilize utilities.

The Wildfire Safety Advisory Board would include seven people with experience in industry, academia and workforce safety.

The governor would appoint five members. The speaker of the Assembly and the president pro tempore of the state Senate would appoint one member each. Board members would not be paid a salary but could get a per diem of up to $400 when attending board meetings.

It would advise a new Wildfire Safety Division within the public utilities commission.

Jamie Court, president of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, argued that open meeting laws should apply to any deliberations about the public’s safety from fires caused by utilities. He pointed to lingering questions about the coziness between utility executives and state regulators.

“We need to open the doors and the meetings at the (Public Utilities Commission) if ratepayers and homeowners are to truly be protected,” Court said.

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Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne contributed to this report.

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