Every mainstream political party in America supports an open and transparent government. Indeed, the Republican Party platform is replete with calls for transparency in government. The Montana Public Service Commission is comprised of five commissioners, paid over $100,000 per year, and all claim to be Republicans. The PSC’s role is to regulate lawful utility monopolies in Montana. While most of us would find rate setting and evaluation of financial statements mind-numbingly dull, the job is critically important to Montanans. As a fiscal conservative, usually I would take solace in having a Republican super majority on the PSC. But recent antics by the PSC leaves me skeptical the current commission is serving Montana’s best interests.
Commissioner Randy Pinocci requested Commissioner Roger Koopman’s emails because he thought Koopman had been “acting strangely “and he “was just trying to help him.” This justification rings hollow, as the request followed Koopman’s criticism of commission members for not following proper hiring procedures, for not enforcing a stricter travel policy and for providing a press release that did not accurately reflect the substance of a significant PSC action. Moreover, instead of confronting Koopman about his stated concerns, the fruits of Pinocci’s email investigation mysteriously ended up in the hands of an entity that widely and publicly disseminated the emails. Pinocci had every right to request the emails, but when questioned, he should have been candid about his motivations. His lack of candor leads Montanans to the likely conclusion the request was politically motivated.
As the story of the PSC commission became less about the work performed by the PSC, the press took notice. So the press, to discover what shenanigans (if any) were occurring, requested all electronic communication amongst commissioners and staff. And instead of releasing the communications, the commission sues the news agencies making the request. The PSC has taken the position that a sitting commissioner is entitled to the emails of another commissioner, but the commission’s boss – Montanans – are not. Montanans have a right to know how their government functions and if government officials fear disclosure of the contents of their email communication, perhaps the remedy is for the public servants to refrain from using public email for private criticism. And yet in a sick ironic twist, these self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives are now using taxpayer dollars to prevent disclosure to the very Montanans the PSC is obligated to serve.
It is a sad day when Montanans have to rely upon the press rather than its public servants to ensure government transparency. Any member of the PSC who supported instituting litigation to prevent disclosure while wearing the Republican banner should resign in shame. Montana deserves better.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.
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