Six Candidates Pack Race for Public Service Commission

The open seat for PSC's District 5, which includes Flathead County, has prompted bids by four local candidates as the race heads for a June 7 primary election

By Tristan Scott
Powerlines. Beacon File Photo

Four Republicans and two Democrats are running for an open seat on the Montana Public Service Commission’s (PSC) District 5, including four candidates who call Flathead County home — and who are all making the case to voters why they’re best suited for one of the highest-compensated positions on the state’s payroll.

The crowded field for a PSC district that encompasses Flathead, Lake, Glacier, Lewis and Clark, Teton, and Pondera counties will soon be winnowed down as candidates from both major parties head for a June 7 primary contest. The high level of interest in serving on the state’s five-member oversight commission, which is charged with regulating public utility companies, coincides with a years-long period during which the PSC has come under intense scrutiny, resulting in a damning legislative audit and an expensive lawsuit stemming from an email-leaking scandal between current and former commissioners and staff members.

Those improprieties cast a shadow over the PSC and raised the profile of the 2022 election as Montana voters have opportunities to elect a new representative to District 5, as well as to District 1, which encompasses the sprawling northeastern portion of the state. In that district, two Republican primary challengers are squaring off against incumbent commissioner Randy Pinocci in a race that has no Democratic contenders and will be decided in the primary election.

In PSC’s District 5, by contrast, the open seat is being vacated by outgoing Republican Commissioner Brad Johnson, of East Helena, who cannot run again due to term limits. The race has generated interest from two Democrats: Whitefish’s John Repke, who most recently worked as chief financial officer for the local wood products manufacturer SmartLam, and East Helena’s Kevin Hamm, a telecommunications professional. A four-way Republican contest has also materialized between primary candidates including: Derek Skees, a longtime Republican legislator from Kalispell who cannot run again for the state House of Representatives due to term limits; Annie Bukacek, a Kalispell physician who served on the Flathead City-County Board of Health but resigned that position to avoid potential conflicts of interest during her candidacy; Dean Crabb, a Marion resident and accredited journeyman lineman; and Helena’s Joe Dooling, a former congressional candidate and rancher.

As recent news of the PSC has increasingly centered on the commissioners rather than the work they perform on behalf of Montana residents, the Beacon spoke to the PSC 5 candidates about their experience and the reason they’re running.

Flathead Valley voters are likely familiar with Skees not only because the conservative Republican first served in the Montana Legislature from 2011 to 2013, but also because he took a two-year hiatus from the state House to run for the PSC in 2013, when he was unsuccessful in his campaign against Johnson. Since then, Skees has been re-elected to three terms as the state representative in House District 11, and chairs the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee. He previously chaired the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee (ETIC) that oversees the PSC and touted his experience in those roles as giving him a degree of first-hand experience.

“I’ve served on the committee that oversees the PSC,” Skees said. “I was there through the email scandal, I was there through two failed audits, and I’ve gained a ton of energy policy experience in the last eight years. The commission has had some issues in the past and there needs to be a commitment to change the culture internally, and to ensure there’s accountability across the board.”

Bukacek joined the local health board in early 2020 and is best known for her criticism of the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as an anti-vaccine activist and for helping to organize protests of public health mitigations crafted to slow the spread of the virus. She said her interest in running for the PSC is the culmination of the experience gained as a business owner, doctor and “advocate for citizens’ needs.” 

“In my practice I learned to charge enough money to meet patient medical needs without pricing low-income patients out of good medical care. That prepared me to make the same kind of fair utility pricing decisions,” Bukacek wrote in an email after declining a phone interview. “I will be an advocate for all Montanans, providers and consumers alike.”

According to Bukacek, the scandals that have plagued the commission in recent years could have been avoided through increased transparency, which she said she would bring to the body.

“I am beholden to nobody and won’t put up with hanky-panky. I will not sign back-dated expense vouchers,” she wrote, alluding to an audit’s findings that found some commissioners violated department policies. “I will weigh each expenditure against the good it will do Montana. To the extent allowed by law, my expense record and votes will be open for public inspection.”

Crabb, a 54-year-old Marion resident who will retire next month from a career in the power industry, said he’s running because Montana’s PSC not only needs cultural reform, but it needs commissioners with experience in public utilities, not career politicians.

“I honestly don’t think I’m going to win this because I’m not a politician. I don’t have a name. I have about 100 signs and I’ve only put about 50 of them out. I talked to someone about a website but it’s not up yet. I put my phone number out there, so anyone can call me and I’ll sit here and talk all day about public utilities. This has been my entire life,” he said. “I have 30 years of experience and I know what’s happening out there, but Montana keeps electing a bunch of retired politicians looking for money.”

Repke, the retired financial officer from Whitefish, said he’d like to see a shift away from the politics and scandal that have come to characterized Montana’s beleaguered PSC, noting that most states’ public utilities commissions require appointments and requisite levels of experience in finance, accounting and setting rates — qualifications that could help Montana’s commission vet candidates who don’t pass muster.

“Not only do they require certain levels of expertise but they also often require minority party representation,” Repke said. “And to have a commission in Montana that is made up entirely of the same party, and really the same conservative wing of the same party, doesn’t result in good self-regulation of the commission itself. So you need to have some people on there who have an opposing view and a different set of standards, and I think having that would raise the standards by which the commission operates. As a commissioner, I would work to protect the ratepayers, I would be fully transparent, and I would just be independent relative to the other commissioners, and therefore I would hold them to a higher standard.”

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