PSC shenanigans

Posted Thu, Apr 28, 2011 at 4:00 AM

The Public Service Commission was in the news two weeks ago 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 the utility 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 Gallagher’s knowledge. At Molnar’s request, Gallagher withheld this information from the other commissioners and staff.

It was particularly concerning that 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. His attendance at 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, Molnar was the vice-chair under a Democratic majority. On another occasion, the four Democratic 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.

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.

Travis Kavulla and Gail Gutsche

Montana Public Service Commission

Comments (1)

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This is not an explanation, this is a cover-up. Kavulla stated the spectacle he created at the PSC could have been avoided if only he had received an apology from Gallagher. Really? An apology for what? There was no wrong doing. There was no unauthorized secret travel by Molnar. I am very interested in the work the PSC performs and I watch the PSC work sessions regularly. I am appalled by the immature school-yard antics of Kavulla since he began serving his term as Commissioner of District One. I am ashamed and embarrassed that I ever supported him.

Molnar did not represent the PSC at the FERC conference. He attended the conference and any other interested Commissioner on the PSC could have attended it as well. Molnar put his travel plans on the PSC calendar five days before the conference. How is that secret? In fact, Kavulla attended the MISO conferences in Indiana last week. Kavulla wasn’t the designated PSC representative at the MISO conferences, he simply attended, just like any other Commissioner could have done. Should we now consider Kavulla attending the MISO conferences an “egregious transgression”? Of course not, but both of these Commissioners attending conferences on tax-payer dollars when they weren’t the PSC designee is exactly the same action.

What I do consider a serious breach of public trust is: Kavulla campaigning against renewable portfolio standards and now he is supporting these mandates. Kavulla being critical of demand side management and lost revenue recovery mechanisms during his campaign but now supports these inequitable burdens on Montana's ratepayers. Kavulla campaigning as a consumer advocate but meets with utility investors in Las Vegas. Kavulla’s highly critical stance of the environmental left during his campaign, but now Gail Gutsche is his confidant, ally, and Vice Chair. And the kicker? Kavulla giving his Commissioner proxy vote to Democrat Gail Gutsche last week while he was attending the MISO conferences. These are the actions we should be considering as egregious transgressions and a breach of public trust.

Last I checked Mr. Kavulla, you had an “R” after your name and you were elected as a Republican to represent District One on the Public Service Commission. The voters did not elect Gail Gutsche or any Democrat to represent District One while voting on PSC issues. You, Mr. Kavulla, are the one who is breaching the public trust.

Posted by ConservativeMT on 05/04/2011 at 9:47 PM
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