As I wrap up my eight years on the Public Service Commission, I think back on all that I have learned. Having previously run an employment agency for 37 years, it’s second nature for me to ask, “What are the most important qualifications for being a good commissioner?” As a life-long Republican, my answer may surprise you, because the stuff that makes for a great PSC commissioner is uniquely different from other political offices.
Truthfully, the nature of the job – the wise regulating and rate-setting of utility monopolies – has almost nothing to do with a commissioner’s political party. But there are three basic qualities a voter should look for when selecting the person to represent them – and the greater public good – on the PSC:
1. The ability to put the public interest ahead of personal politics, ambitions and agendas. Most PSC candidates come with the baggage of previous political experience and partisan involvement. While this isn’t an immediate disqualifier (I myself am one), seasoned politicians generally have a harder time checking their egos and their politics at the door, avoiding intra-commission alliances and keeping their minds open to all evidence and all points of view. A five-person commission can only serve the public interest when all commissioners are willing to respect, listen to and learn from the others – as well as from the PSC staff and the public at large. They must be willing to deliberate on each docket with an unbiased, well-informed and open mind.
2. The willingness to devote long hours to the job, and possessing the intellect to understand what’s said and read. The PSC commissioner job offers a unique opportunity to cheat your employer – the public – if that’s your goal. Commissioners who lack a work ethic can get by doing very little to earn their $109,000 salary. Unfortunately, I have seen multiple examples of this. To these commissioners, the “work” is in the getting elected. After that, they flaunt their title and do little else. Good commissioners, with an active conscience, put at least 40 to 50 hours a week into the job, and do an enormous amount of reading for each case that comes before the commission. They have an intellectual curiosity for all areas that the PSC regulates, and are constantly striving to self-educate, self-improve and gain a stronger grasp on the many responsibilities the job entails.
3. Integrity, fidelity, transparency and adherence to the law and to the established policies of the PSC. It cannot be emphasized too strongly, the legal and fiduciary responsibilities that rest on the shoulders of every Public Service Commissioner. The work of the commission impacts many millions of dollars and the lives and businesses of every resident in the state. Persons who are inclined to play it fast and loose with the truth, or who are drawn to game-playing and deal-making out of the public eye have no place on the Public Service Commission. Both the internal and statutory rules commissioners are required to follow are there to protect the ratepayers and the integrity and credibility of the commission itself. They cannot be compromised. It follows that any commissioner who has a problem with openness and total public transparency is a commissioner who is in the wrong job.
Currently, the PSC is a mess, guilty of everything from spying on colleagues to intimidating staff, abusing law enforcement, slandering, lying and flagrantly violating agency rules. I have sounded the alarm, but all my appeals have fallen on deaf ears. To one degree or another, all four commissioners are responsible for the train wreck, either by their own shameful actions or their failure to act when duty called.
There are three PSC seats up this election cycle, so the control of the commission hangs in the balance. I will make no endorsements. I ask only that you consider the job qualifications I’ve listed, learn about each candidate, and choose wisely.
Roger Koopman is a Republican member of the Montana Public Service Commission.
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