The Public Service Commission was in the news recently relating to a shake-up in the PSC’s leadership. As the PSC’s new chair and vice chair, we think the change deserves a fuller explanation.
Put simply, this was a vote of no confidence in the leadership for a breach of public trust.
The basic facts are as follows: Last month, the PSC designated two representatives – staff attorney Jim Paine and Commissioner Bill Gallagher (R-Helena) – to represent the commission as a party before a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) settlement conference in Washington, D.C. The conference concerned a sensitive matter of great importance to NorthWestern Energy ratepayers: Who should pay, and how much, for the $183 million Mill Creek gas plant recently built by NorthWestern Energy near Anaconda. Millions of dollars are at stake.
Commissioner Brad Molnar (R-Laurel) was not among those designated to represent the Commission at these settlement talks. Nonetheless, he flew to Washington on taxpayer dollars without anyone but Commissioner Gallagher’s knowledge. At Molnar’s request, Gallagher withheld this information from the other commissioners and staff.
It was particularly concerning that Commissioner Molnar attended the FERC settlement conference since in the past he has had improper communication with a FERC commissioner and staff on an open docket, which resulted in a strongly worded written reprimand admonishing him to follow the procedures. Simply attending the settlement conference in March lowered the credibility of everyone there representing the commission.
We find this lack of transparency unacceptable and believe that most Montanans would agree with us. There is no entitlement to secrecy when public funds are being expended. It is also worth noting that this was just the most recent of many egregious transgressions by Molnar during his tenure on the PSC.
Obviously this last flare-up of controversy was disturbing to commissioners, the PSC staff, and the public. For that we apologize, but we believe it was necessary to temporarily sacrifice comfort in the name of open government.
We are committed to running the commission as an evidence-driven body, governed by decorum. The new leadership team includes a conservative chairman from one party who has a history of involvement in Republican politics in Montana and nationally. Our vice chair is a progressive Democrat from Missoula, who served four terms in the Montana House of Representatives. It goes without saying that we’ll not always agree, but that will not stop us from getting along and guiding the PSC in a positive manner.
Throughout the decades, the PSC has opted to share leadership positions among both parties, regardless of which party held the majority. There is strong precedent and good reason for doing so. In fact, Commissioner Molnar was the vice-chair under a Democrat majority. On another occasion, the four Democrat commissioners elected the lone Republican as chair because he was best qualified to lead. Every two years new commissioners are elected, which means the power shifts regularly as to which party holds the majority on the commission. Consistency is important in ratemaking, and it only makes sense to share the leadership responsibilities.
Going forward, we will work in a professional and accountable manner and stick to the issues at hand. Arguments that do not have a factual foundation will not be entertained at our weekly work sessions, which are streamed live online. The commission will strive to be transparent in every aspect of its work.
The PSC has before it many important issues that directly affect ratepayers.
•Energy West, serving Great Falls, Cascade, and West Yellowstone, has a major rate case before the commission.
•Mountain Water of Missoula is facing acquisition by a large private equity firm.
• NorthWestern Energy will be applying for over $100 million in authority to upgrade its distribution infrastructure, and another $77 million to acquire a wind plant in the Judith Basin.
• A major rate case which concluded last year is facing litigation, and we hope to work to resolve the issue so a prolonged court case will not be necessary.
• Montana Dakota Utilities in eastern Montana also has a major rate case facing a settlement.
Hearings for all of these dockets will take place this year, and they relate to issues which defy easy partisanship, even while they are important and involve large sums of money. As always, we encourage public involvement and comment.
Travis Kavulla (R-Great Falls) and Gail Gutsche (D-Missoula) are the chair and vice-chair of the Montana Public Service Commission.
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