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Guest view: A cavalcade of PSC misdeeds

Guest view: A cavalcade of PSC misdeeds

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Valerie McMurtry

VALERIE McMURTRY

“Have you no sense of decency?” These were the words that brought down Senator Joseph McCarthy and his reign of terror in 1954. Although it is sixty six years later, I might ask the same thing of the Montana Public Service Commission. Have you no sense of decency about the job the voters elected you to do?

Since February these commissioners have demeaned the office, discredited themselves and mocked the citizens who sent them to Helena to represent them. Let me recount their misdeeds:

February 7: NorthWestern Energy submitted its plan to purchase 25% more of Colstrip Unit 4. The utility company is asking for approval of this transaction without disclosing costs or long term debt which will be paid for by the customer.

February 18: NorthWestern Energy requests the PSC to keep hidden from the public the terms of the 5-year coal contract. This contract will be a factor in the cost of electricity for the ratepayers of NWE.

The public has a right to know, and in the state of Washington, those ratepayers are informed.

February 22: The Billings Gazette exposed two PSC members, Randy Pinocci, Brad Johnson, and the communications director, Drew Zinecker, who had hacked Roger Koopman's emails, both business and personal, and had them published. The animosity between members of the PSC had been simmering for a while but under the radar of the public. It was now exposed and in full view.

February 29: It is revealed that Pinocci is at it again with his cohort Zinecker. This time posting on a far right website that Koopman is dangerous. Zinecker also accuses Tony O’Donnell of campaigning from work which is a violation of state laws.

March 1: Roger Koopman in an opinion piece accuses his fellow commissioners of failing to do the job they were elected to do. He says that they pursue political gamesmanship and make no meaningful contribution to the PSC.

March 17: Responding to pressure from citizens and the Montana Consumer Council, the Public Service Commission, by a unanimous vote, told NorthWestern Energy to provide more details and information on its request to acquire 12.5% more of Colstrip Unit 4. Billings’ own Commissioner Toni O’Donnell was a bit of a hero that day when he said that there were many different questions that needed clarification before approval. The commission was praised for standing up to NWE and doing the ‘right thing’ for the 375,000 ratepayers of the monopoly utility.

I guess the PSC does have a sense of decency, right? Read on….

April 17: A head-snapping about-face, a 180, a half-pipe; just five weeks after being praised for doing the ‘right thing’ and asking for more information about the purchase by NWE of 12.5% of Colstrip Unit 4 for $.50, the PSC reversed its decision. The commissioners no longer needed information about the costs of repair, remediation, replacement & maintenance that will be passed on to the customers of the utility company once pre-approval is given. It gave no justification or reason for this reversal. The vote was 4-1, with Koopman dissenting.

Tony O’Donnell was apologetic about his stance from the month before. He expressed excitement about the prospect of this energy purchase, with no mention of the cost to the ratepayers in his district that he represents.

Even the PSC analysts and the Montana Consumer Council recommended against this reversal. But they did it anyway.

It begs the question, “Why?”

April 29: Republicans Tony O’Donnell and state Rep. Rod Garcia go to Colstrip to pitch the idea of mixing toxic coal ash with concrete to make building materials for the next 40 years. That’s Commish O’Donnell’s answer to the ash pond cleanup. The coal ash contains carcinogens and neurotoxins such as boron, selenium, arsenic, cadmium and lead.

***Step right up and be the first to have your home foundation poured with coal ash concrete!

May 5: “Have you no sense of decency, commissioners?”

Commissioner Koopman tried to censure Commissioner Pinocci for accessing his emails, including personal ones and publishing them. He made a motion to that effect but none of the other commissioners would second the motion. The motion died and no further action was taken.

May 8: Koopman writes another opinion piece and calls out his colleagues for misuse of the PSC travel budget, unethical conduct, and reducing the commission to a cesspool of moral apathy.

May 12: The PSC is suing the Billings Gazette over release of public records. News media in the state and some individuals have requested release of public information. The PSC will cost the taxpayer more money as a result of this suit. When the matter goes before a judge, the decision will go in favor of release. They are public documents.

May 13: A Gazette editorial makes the argument for elimination of the PSC. There are only 12 states that have an elected utility commission. The commissioners make over $100,000 annually and the state could put that to better use, instead of paying these men to waste taxpayer money with their incompetence.

May 21: At the Legislature’s Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee, Senator Mary McNally grilled Commission Chairman Brad Johnson about why the commission reversed their decision to get more information from NWE about the acquisition of Colstrip, Unit 4. Rep. Denise Hayman wanted to know what transpired in between the two meetings and who else was involved. It turns out there were phone records of multiple phone calls with the mayor of Colstrip.

“Have you no sense of shame, Chairman Johnson?”

So this is the synopsis of the dysfunction, and skulduggery by the PSC in the past 4 months. The final ruling on Colstrip, Unit 4 remains, as does the final decision about releasing the terms of the coal contract. Senator McNally and Representative Hayman were right to try and get to the bottom of the flip-flop by commissioners in regard to Unit 4. Who else was involved in these discussions? NorthWestern Energy officials? The public deserves the answers.

Republican Representative and energy committee member Daniel Zolnikov, who is running for the PSC, remained silent throughout the questioning of Chairman Johnson. Why?

These Republican commissioners have failed the voters who elected them. They ignore the recommendations of staff, and the advice of the Montana Consumer Council.

These Republican commissioners have taken the “Public” out of the Public Service Commission and replaced it with the Corporate Service Commission. That is wrong. All five should be replaced, unfortunately only 3 will be on the ballot in November. Who you elect matters.

It is time to put the “Public” back in the Public Service Commission.

Valerie McMurtry is a candidate for Public Service Commission District 2.

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