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N.C. Opinions: Winston-Salem

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Utilities Commission gives Duke a lesson

Decision makes Duke-Progress merger documents public

From an editorial in The (Winston-Salem) Journal on Wednesday:

The N.C. Utilities Commission had a valuable lesson for Duke Energy last week: For a regulated utility, the number of reasons to hide information from public view is limited, and the potential for embarrassment is not one of them.

The commission ordered Duke to publicly disclose thousands of pages of documents related to its merger with Progress Energy earlier this year. Both the commission and the attorney general’s office are investigating the surprise ouster, just hours after the merger was completed, of Progress Energy’s CEO, Bill Johnson, who was supposed to run the combined company.

This is not a simple matter of a private business’s affairs. To the contrary, when two energy companies of this size merge, important public matters must be weighed, among them the potential for monopolistic abuse and the effects on the state’s energy supply.

The brouhaha created by Johnson’s quick exit led the commission to request reams of information, and Duke marked 5,000 pages of its response as confidential, saying they contained trade secrets. The commission read those pages and ruled, last week, that only 672 can remain wholly confidential, another 1,432 can have some matter redacted and the rest, 2,929 pages, must be released to the public within 10 days.

With the release, the public will learn what Duke wanted to hide. The commission indicated that the pages include discussions of retail rates and general topics. Given the controversy that Johnson’s firing created, we expect widespread interest in the documents.

There’s a valuable lesson for all in this ruling: Government agencies and regulated entities are legally required to be open with the public.

There are legitimate reasons to keep some material under lock and key, and the commission recognized that in this case. Even government agencies are allowed to keep personnel files and other highly sensitive information private. But when the public has as much at stake as it has in this merger, then the public must have access to the truth.

Congratulations to the commission for recognizing that fact.

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