Saturday, July 12, 2014

PUC appeals TL’s open records request to court

December 03. 2013 11:18PM

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The state’s Public Utility Commission on Tuesday filed an appeal to the state’s Office of Open Records’ order to release a redacted anonymous letter to The Times Leader that alleged a breach of PPL’s internal protocols regarding the company’s response to an October 2011 storm.

At issue is the letter, written by a person alleging to be a PPL employee though he or she did not sign their name, that was used as the basis for a settlement agreement between the electric company and the state’s PUC. The settlement, approved by the commission in October, included a $60,000 civil penalty levied against the Allentown-based utility.

The letter purportedly details PPL’s alleged improper transfer of a restoration crew in the wake of the Oct. 29, 2011, snowstorm.

The allegation was that the restoration crew was transferred from a higher-priority job in order to restore service to a lower-priority job. Neither location has been publicly disclosed, and the PUC agreed to keep the letter confidential as part of the agreement to reach a settlement.

The letter was sought by The Times Leader as part of a right-to-know request, but the PUC rejected the attempt on Oct. 4, citing concerns over the letter being able to identify the employee who wrote it, even though it was sent anonymously.

The Times Leader filed an appeal that same day to the Office of Open Records, which ruled Nov. 4 that the letter must be provided to the newspaper because it is deemed a public document under the commission’s own statutes.

The PUC had 30 days to release the letter or file an appeal with the Commonwealth Court. The PUC opted to do the latter. In its filing, the commission argued its reasons for why the letter should remain private. Chiefly it argues that the letter, if it were released, is “likely to disclose the identity of the confidential informant.” It also states the letter identifies the person accused of directing “the improper retasking of work crews.”

The Office of Open Records, or OOR, and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association have argued that redacting the identifying information would solve these issues but the PUC has pressed forward without releasing the letter.

“It’s not surprising to see a state agency appeal a decision from the OOR, but it is disappointing,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

“The law is clear, and the OOR agreed, that the PUC’s own statute requires disclosure. Hopefully, the Commonwealth Court will act quickly and affirm public access so that the public can understand the basis for the PUC’s actions in this case.”

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