After nearly two days of stalemate, unconventional parliamentary tactics, firey accusations and sensitive negotiations the Montana Public Service Commission finally settled on new leadership on Tuesday.
Newly elected Republican commissioner Bill Gallagher, of Helena, will serve as chairman of the five member panel after reluctantly agreeing to a deal that also put embattled GOP commissioner Brad Molnar, of Laurel, in the vice-chairman’s seat.
The PSC adjourned on Monday having not elected a chairman after newly-elected Republican commissioner Travis Kavulla, of Great Falls, refused to vote for Molnar, the senior member of the commission.
Kavulla said he had concerns about Molnar’s “temperament and leadership” abilities as well as Molnar’s ongoing ethics case. The state Commissioner of Political Practices ruled last fall that Molnar violated state ethics laws by accepting gifts from companies that appear before the PSC and using state-owned equipment for campaign purposes.
Gallagher, who repeatedly declined Kavulla’s nomination of him for chairman on Monday, finally agreed on Tuesday to accept the nomination on the condition that Molnar would serve as vice-chair.
Molnar reluctantly agreed to the deal, but not before chastising Kavulla and accusing him of doing the bidding of utility lobbyists for NorthWestern Energy and legislators who “carry their water” by blocking Molnar’s ascension to the panel’s top post.
Kavulla on Sunday presented Molnar with a list of nine conditions that Molnar had to agree to in order to secure Kavulla’s vote for chairman. Most of those conditions revolved around Molnar agreeing not to act on behalf of the commission without prior approval of the other Republicans on the panel. Molnar angrily rejected Kavulla’s “Chairman’s Code of Conduct” in a heated exchange on Monday. Kavulla told reporters that he developed the list of conditions after consultation with
utility industry representatives of companies and other groups who appear before the commission and some Republican legislators. (Note: Kavulla told me that he spoke to other groups besides just utility company representatives. Corrected 1/5, 9:45 a.m.)
“To allow lobbyists, particularly of the utility, to determine who shall be the commissioner, more importantly who shall be the chairman of that commission, is as patently wrong as anything I’ve ever seen,” Molnar said.
Molnar said he has confidence in Gallagher’s ability to chair the body, but he added that having a freshman commissioner serve as the leader of the PSC will serve to “weaken” the commission.
“(Gallagher) will need those same lobbyists and staff hired by others to guide him for a long time, and during that time the utility, and lobbyists and legislators who work for them overtly and covertly, will be in control, and that is not a good precedent,” Molnar said.
In an unprecedented move that rankled the two Democrats on the panel, the commission voted along party lines to suspend the rules and first vote for vice-chairman before voting for chairman.
Democratic commissioner John Vincent, of Gallatin Gateway, said Tuesday’s actions could open the door to unprecedented political gamesmanship for future commissions.
“I think would be a dangerous step to create a ticket in this manner,” Vincent said. “I think it is out of character, and I think that it sets a bad precedent. I think it opens up the election of chairman to even a new and higher level of politics. I don’t want to be a part of that precedent.”
After the panel voted 3-2 along party lines to elect Molnar as vice chairman, Kavulla rose on a point of personal privilege and defended his actions. Kavulla said Molnar’s comments demonstrate why he could not vote for him as chairman.
“I’m not going to go into personal interactions…that we’ve had that have made me doubt your temperament and leadership, but there have been many,” Kavulla told Molnar. “I wish to take exception to Brad Molnar’s comments, which are exactly a reflection of why he will not be chairman of this body.”
Gallagher said after the PSC work session that he did not think a freshman commissioner was qualified to serve as chairman of the state body that regulates the state’s public utilities, but that it appeared to be the only way to break the impasse.
“I am not the most qualified for the chair; that was in fact Brad Molnar. But given what we had to deal with, I came to the conclusion that I was willing to lead if I could have Brad Molnar as my vice chair,” Gallagher said.
Asked by reporters if the majority party could set aside their differences and work together effectively going forward, Gallagher said: “I think the answer to that question is going to depend on what the question is going to be before the commission. In a lot of cases it is going to be yes and in a lot of cases the answer is going to be no.”