Incumbent faces stiff challenge in southeastern PSC race
By Peter Zimmerman Community News Service, UM School of Journalism
Republican Tony O’Donnell is saying his record during his first stint as the Public Service Commissioner for District 2 is reason enough for him to be re-elected to another four-year term.
“I’ve been doing a good job representing ratepayers and striking the required balance between fairness between regulated entities and ratepayers,” said O’Donnell, a Billings businessman who represents PSC District 2, which serves 10 counties in southeast Montana, including Yellowstone County.
But Democratic challenger Valerie McMurtry said she wants to see O’Donnell unseated for the same reason: his record. McMurtry, who worked in the Billings school system for 27 years, lists O’Donnell’s attendance record, recent ethics violations and voting record as reasons why he should not be re-elected to the PSC.
The Public Service Commission is a regulatory body made up of five elected commissioners. It is best known for setting the rates utilities like NorthWestern Energy can charge homeowners for energy.
The PSC’s job is to ensure that the rates utilities charge customers are fair: high enough to give companies an incentive to provide power, yet affordable for ratepayers.
McMurtry said the current PSC and O’Donnell have not lived up to that standard. She referred to a PSC decision last October allowing NorthWestern a $6.5 million increase for ratepayers while larger customers like Exxon Mobil saw a 7% rate reduction.
“It should be called the Corporate Services Commission, because they certainly vote with shareholders of corporations more than they do with the voters who elected them,” McMurtry said.
O’Donnell dismissed the comment, saying NorthWestern had originally asked for a rate increase of $34.5 million. By cutting that amount by more than 80%, O’Donnell said the PSC struck a good balance between ratepayers and the utility.
McMurtry cited the October 2019 vote in relation to an issue that put the PSC in the headlines recently: transparency. The vote was made without public knowledge and it was five days before the PSC acknowledged the rate increase. The meeting’s minutes were not made available for six days.
In another case, when the Billings Gazette and other news organizations sought records pertaining to an unauthorized release of one PSC member’s emails by another, the PSC replied by suing the news organizations.
That incident, and others, led the Gazette to call for the PSC’s elimination and replacement.
“There’s certainly been a lack of transparency and accountability,” McMurtry said.
“We have not engaged in any lack of transparency whatever,” O’Donnell said, calling the accusation “complete silliness.” He said that any perceived lack of transparency is due to a lack of understanding about what the PSC is legally allowed to share.
Montana’s Constitution guarantees the public’s right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies, except when the demands of individual privacy override that.
Utilities have a right to seek protection orders and request that documents be held in confidentiality, but they must prove the information needs shouldn’t be public.
Transparency isn’t the only criticism O’Donnell has had to deal with recently. In July he was found to have violated state ethics laws for using his office as the backdrop for a campaign video and for using the PSC seal on campaign material, implying the state backs his re-election.
O’Donnell maintains that he did nothing wrong, “It was a passive use of my desk, I certainly wouldn’t classify that as having anything to do with being unethical,” he said.
O’Donnell was also found to have violated campaign finance rules for leaving out required details about his campaign spending during the 2020 primary.
If elected, McMurtry said she plans to post meeting schedules and make sure all meetings are open to the public. She also pledged to attend every meeting.
Attendance has been another issue in the District 2 race. The PSC meets once a week, and O’Donnell was present at just 55% of the meetings in 2019.
O’Donnell had knee replacement surgery last year, which he said kept him from traveling from Billings to Helena for in-person meetings. He said that though he was not physically at those meetings, he did attend via telephone, bringing his attendance rate up to about 83%.
“If I had an 80% attendance record as a teacher, I would not have been a teacher the next year,” McMurtry said.
Whoever wins the PSC seat will have to grapple with Montana’s energy future, one in which renewable energy sources seek a larger role.
The Montana Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court ruling, which held that the PSC knew it would hinder the development of solar energy when it suspended a federal law that requires utilities to buy power from alternative sources.
Solar energy producers argued the PSC’s 2017 decision made their industry unsustainable because it set the rates that utilities pay solar providers too low and made the contracts too short.
O’Donnell stands by the decision made in 2017, saying he questions renewables’ ability to supply stable power.
“Renewable energy is intermittent and it needs to be demonstrated to me that you can take intermittent power and turn it into something that’s reliable,” he said.
McMurtry disagreed. “Wind and solar are getting less expensive all the time,” she said. “I have children and grandchildren and I think renewables have to be part of the future.”