Montana view: Get rid of the Public Service Commission
MONTANA VIEW

Montana view: Get rid of the Public Service Commission

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The Montana Public Service Commission has become more noted for its entertainment value than for its contribution to public policy or utility oversight. Low comedy and political skulduggery are not specifically stated goals in the commission’s enabling legislation, yet they seem to be the body’s primary work product.

If this is the best commission Montana voters can elect — for whatever reason — then the system needs to be changed.

The commission under chairman Brad Johnson has shown stunning contempt for the “public” word in its name, whether for public information, or protecting the public trust.

This commission is intended to be a quasi-judicial body. Never has “quasi” been asked to cover so much territory. It is run like a kangaroo court. Meanwhile, these clowns are making $109,000 a year, plus expenses. As chair, Johnson makes $111,000 and change.

Here’s what we need to do:

Blow it up.

Get rid of it.

Replace it with something that works.

Only 12 states still have elected public utility commissions. Montana no longer needs to be one of them.

It is generally anathema for us to advocate the removal of the public accountability that should come with elective positions. But the truth is literally on the surface: This is not working.

Blame the fact that PSC districts have not been reapportioned for more than a decade. Blame the level of complexity of the matters before the commission providing some insulation from transparency. Blame the media, if you like, for not doing a better job of exposing this commission’s flaws and general level of ineptitude over the years. Blame the Legislature for not considering sooner what they now must consider: Rewriting this commission out of existence. But whomever you wish to blame, it’s time to light a fire under the Legislature’s tail feathers to get this changed.

Does the Legislature’s Republican majority really want to be tarred by the Republican-dominated Commission’s surreal performance any longer? Do legislators really want to rise in defense of this status quo?

While appropriate controls need to be written into new enabling legislation, an appointed commission would at least be answerable in real time for transgressions like, oh, one commissioner hacking another’s emails and exposing personal information; holding “public” meetings in locked buildings; providing insufficient notice of public meetings; incessant bickering and name-calling between commissioners; issuing news releases that fail to mention $6.4 million rate increases granted; and in general providing utility oversight that runs the gamut between sycophantic and supine.

Montana would not even have to look at the examples of other states in order to fashion an appointed judicial body. It has done so before. Montana's Water Court is an excellent example of an appointed body that has effectively taken on a complex, specialized area.

A new twist: As reported Tuesday, the Public Service Commission, responding to public information requests from The Billings Gazette, The Great Falls Tribune, and Yellowstone Public Radio, decided simply to sue the requesting media outlets instead of deciding for or against fulfilling the requests. This approach, while doomed to failure, is bound to cost the state money and delay the release of clearly public records.

How much longer are we willing to be embarrassed by this commission’s fundamental unfitness for the task it has been given?

The Billings Gazette

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