Seven Republicans and two Democrats have filed to campaign for the two seats coming open on Montana’s Public Service Commission, the five-member body that regulates investor-owned utility companies with captive customer bases.
Two Republicans, K. Webb Galbreath of Browning and Arlo Christianson of Great Falls, filed to run against District 1 incumbent commissioner Randy Pinocci, a Republican from Sun River whose district spans 22 counties. Republicans Derek Skees, Joe Dooling, Ann Bukacek and Dean Crabb, and Democrats Kevin Hamm and John Repke are running in District 5, which includes Lewis and Clark, Flathead, Lake and Teton counties.
The 2022 election comes on the heels of a five-year streak of scandals that have put the PSC under a microscope. Those incidents include an email-leaking scandal between current and former commissioners and staffers that has since boiled over into a $2.25 million lawsuit, and a scathing legislative audit that described the body as having “an unhealthy organizational culture and ineffective leadership” that permitted falsification of documents and lack of adherence to state policy. Also of note is a 2020 state Supreme Court ruling that found the all-Republican commission unlawfully disadvantaged small solar projects by setting unfavorable contract terms.
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The election also comes after current commission chair James Brown responded to the audit by pledging to address cultural, organizational and policy issues at the PSC. Brown was elected to the commission alongside former Montana lawmaker Jennifer Fielder in the fall of 2020.
Last year Brown told lawmakers he would take disciplinary action and implement training to address shortcomings highlighted in the audit, which was “disclaimed” by auditors, a rare judgment reflecting auditors’ lack of faith in the accuracy of the commission’s books for fiscal years 2019 and 2020. The PSC recently made staffing changes, too, hiring an executive director to help implement the changes. At least two administrative staffers implicated in recent scandals have left the agency in the past two years.
Brown might not be at the commission for his full four-year term, though: He recently announced that he’s running for a seat this year on the Montana Supreme Court.
DISTRICT 5 CANDIDATES
East Helena Republican Brad Johnson, who currently occupies the District 5 seat, terms out of the position this year. Since no incumbent is running, District 5 is widely considered to be the more competitive of this year’s two PSC races.
Derek Skees, a Kalisell Republican who has termed out of the Montana House of Representatives, will campaign in a Republican primary with Helena farmer and former U.S. House candidate Joe Dooling, Flathead City-County Health Department board member Ann Bukacek and Dean Crabb of Marion. Democrats who’ve filed include Helena telecommunications professional Kevin Hamm and John Repke, a Whitefish resident who recently retired as chief financial officer of SmartLam, LLC, a wood products business.
During the last legislative session, Skees chaired the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee. He sponsored four bills that passed and 12 that failed. Measures that passed include House Bill 475, which revised what energy sources are considered renewable under Montana Code to include nuclear energy and existing hydroelectric facilities, and House Bill 273, which struck down a Montana law requiring voters to sign off on nuclear energy projects and removed such projects from the purview of the state’s Major Facilities Siting Act.
Skees’ pitch to voters is that he knows energy, having spent eight years on the House Energy Committee, and that the PSC needs commissioners who are “agnostic” about energy sources and able to manage the “delicate balance” of neither favoring nor antagonizing companies like NorthWestern Energy that fall under the commission’s regulatory oversight. Asked about his understanding of climate change and how he envisions its relevance to utility regulators, Skees told Montana Free Press “man-made global warming is false” and described climate change as a “hoax designed to set up a system of controls” — a conspiracy he compared to government management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dooling, a former KLJ Engineering project manager and the second candidate to file for the District 5 seat, said the commission needs to develop a long-term game plan for lowering ratepayer bills by adding more megawatts into Montana’s energy mix. The PSC also needs a cultural shake-up so it’s no longer acceptable for commissioners to secretly acquire each other’s emails or fall asleep on the job, he said.
“It’s time for the career politicians to go away and for people who want to do the job to step up and do the job,” he said, suggesting the commission has been compromised by politicians more interested in the position’s salary than its responsibilities. Commissioners have one of the highest-paid jobs in state government, earning a base annual salary of $109,000.
Asked about climate change, Dooling said that as a farmer he’s seen milder winters and hotter summers over the past decades, and he wishes the conversation were less politicized.
“If you’re not outraged by forest fires, but you’re outraged by coal plants, you’re really not even putting two and two together,” he said, adding that he’d like to see Montana make investments in technology to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Bukacek, an internal medicine doctor in Kalispell, filed to run for the PSC late last week. She declined a phone interview with MTFP but answered two of five questions submitted via email. Asked about pressing issues likely to come before the commission in the next four years, she wrote, “In Montana, in these uncertain times where many are fearful of the future, we are blessed with natural resources for renewable, reliable, dispatchable energy.”
Asked about her strengths as a candidate, Bukacek wrote, “I have a proven passion for helping people optimize their quality of life. A Public Service Commissioner should give sane, fair, and balanced protection to Montana’s energy needs for its citizens’ well-being. I will.”
A call to Crabb seeking comment wasn’t returned by press time Tuesday afternoon.
Democrats from Helena and Whitefish are also running for the District 5 seat.
Kevin Hamm announced his candidacy last year. Hamm is the CEO of two Helena companies, Auxilyum Technologies and Treasure State Internet and Telegraph, and the president of Big Sky Pride.
His pitch to voters is that the PSC has been compromised under the tenure of commissioners who are “asleep at the wheel — literally asleep” and that the commission needs stronger regulatory oversight to better serve ratepayers. He describes himself as a member of a “fifth generation telecom” family who’s been around regulated businesses his whole life.
“[The commissioners] insist on trying to put the free market into a system that literally doesn’t allow the free market to exist,” he said. “The PSC is supposed to be holding [utility companies] accountable and say, ‘you must treat the people in Montana fairly,’ and they haven’t been doing that.”
Asked about the position’s role related to climate change, he said, “If you love Montana and you don’t understand that climate change is literally going to destroy everything, you shouldn’t be in public service. The wildfires we’ve had recently are because of climate change, and they are out of control.”
Hamm said that means “… we have to fight NorthWestern Energy and say, ‘Hey, opening a new plant that’s going to put a bunch of CO2 into the air — unacceptable. You need to do better.’”
NorthWestern Energy, the largest utility company regulated by the PSC, serves two-thirds of the state’s energy customers. Last May it announced plans to build a natural gas plant in Laurel, procure energy from the state’s first utility-scale battery project, and enter into an agreement with Powerex Corp for power from primarily hydroelectric sources.
Repke, of Whitefish, is the other Democrat who’s filed for the District 5 seat. He said he was inspired to run for the commission after being discouraged by what he described as a “complete lack of competency and professionalism” among the current commissioners. He said his executive experience working for various companies will bring technical, analytical and financial experience to the PSC.
“I’ve been around long enough to know which questions to ask and where to look when dealing with a large company and their financials,” he said, adding that he’d also like to restore a better working relationship between commissioners and agency staff.
Repke downplayed his political affiliation, saying the race “should not be about what letter comes after your name,” but rather about candidates’ ability to “do the work of the PSC, which is technical, complex and consequential.”
Asked about climate change and a commissioner’s role, Repke said “sustainable, low-emission energy sources are important, and reviewing the investments that are being made by the utilities and the various options they have for energy sources is certainly something I would expect the commission to be involved in.”
DISTRICT 1 CANDIDATES
Two Republicans will challenge incumbent commissioner Randy Pinocci in the primary for District 1, which covers a broad swath of rural Montana from Glendive to Glacier County. No Democrats filed for the seat.
Pinocci, who was elected to the seat in 2018, touted his experience on the commission and his prior experience as a state representative who served on the Legislature’s Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee, since renamed the Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee. He said he’s put in plenty of miles, often on his own dime, to become familiar with the issues important to his constituents. He also described himself as a careful steward of agency finances who scrupulously follows expenditure procedures.
Pinocci identified expanding oil and gas drilling to lower ratepayers’ energy bills as being top-of-mind for the commission in the next four years. The PSC is deeply involved in setting rates for electricity and natural gas, but has no oversight of oil and gas drilling decisions, which involve other government agencies like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Montana Board of Oil and Gas Conservation.
Pinocci has been implicated in one of the commission’s recent scandals: accusations that former Commissioner Roger Koopman’s emails were leaked to a conservative media outlet. That allegation is at the heart of a lawsuit Koopman filed against the state and the PSC. Pinocci and outgoing Commissioner Johnson are also named in the lawsuit, as are two former PSC staffers. Pinocci said the “lawsuit is going nowhere” and described Koopman’s statement in legal filings as “manufactured.”
Asked about his understanding of climate change and his role as a commissioner, Pinocci described it as a “natural process that’s happened for millions of years” and said he “absolutely” cares about the environment. He cited nuclear energy and a carbon capture unit for a coal-fired plant — ideally one that could pump carbon dioxide into a medical marijuana greenhouse to optimize plant growth — as technologies meriting a closer look.
K. Webb Galbreath, a Marine Corps veteran and the Blackfeet Tribe’s operations manager, will compete in the Republican primary against Pinocci.
Galbreath said he was motivated to run for the seat after reading about the PSC’s recent audit and its finding that several of the issues it raised were persistent, having been flagged in the agency’s prior audit.
“I had a hard time swallowing that,” he said. “I think we really need leadership in the Public Service Commission, and I feel the employees are a direct reflection of leadership.”
Galbreath, a rancher and enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe, said he thinks rural customers are “held hostage” by virtue of having few options to purchase power and natural gas. He also noted that more than half of the Indian reservations in Montana are in District 1.
Galbreath said that river-constricting drought worries him, particularly given how much hydroelectric power is generated in the state.
‘We have to embrace climate change and make decisions for the future,” he said, adding that wind and solar power should be a larger part of the state’s energy mix.
Pinocci and Galbreath are joined in the Republican primary race by Arlo Christianson, who did not return calls for comment by press time.
A NEW PSC DISTRICT MAP
The map that divvies up the PSC’s five districts changed last week after a panel of federal judges deemed the old map unconstitutional for failing to accommodate population shifts. The court ordered Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Montana’s top election official, to proceed with a new district map that expands the geographic spread of districts 1 and 4 and shrinks districts 3 and 5.
Perhaps no candidate is more impacted by the shift than Galbreath, a Glacier County resident who originally filed to run in District 5, but had to re-file for District 1 after the district boundary was moved westward. Galbreath said running against an incumbent, Pinocco, will make for a tougher race, but said he doesn’t have other major concerns about the change.
The Montana Legislature has the option of redrawing the map when it convenes in 2023.
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