Every Montanan knows the experience of opening the utility bill and wondering how the rates were decided. Paying those bills is a challenge for many Montana families.
To insure fairness of rates, Montanans elect public service commissioners, charged with reviewing submissions from utilities and arriving at rate decisions that allow a fair return for the utility and a justifiable price for consumers.
On March 5, the PSC voted 4-1 to take a step that jeopardizes that assurance. The five-member, all Republican commission voted to repeal a 2010 rule requiring utilities to disclose the salaries of their highest-paid executives.
The move stems from a pending lawsuit filed by Mountain Water Co. of Missoula, recently acquired by the global asset management firm the Carlyle Group. The firm argues the PSC has no right to declare the executive salaries public information.
Water service monopoly
Though no ruling has been issued by the District Court, the PSC majority said the privately owned firm, a state-regulated monopoly, has a right to keep those salaries secret.
Bozeman's Roger Koopman said, "This is Montana, and I think here in Montana we need to say privacy matters."
Fellow commissioner Travis Kavulla of Great Falls sounded the lone dissent, saying public utility monopolies are subject to a different degree of scrutiny than totally private firms.
We agree and we are confident the state's Supreme Court would also agree.
The citizens of Missoula have granted Mountain States the right to provide an essential commodity — water. Montanans have reserved the right to regulate the companies that get to monopolize our public water systems.
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One key way the PSC ensures costs incurred by utilities and passed on to consumers through rates are prudent is by knowing how much the executives are paid. We rightly expect our PSC to consider that. Under the action taken March 5, the commissioners would not have that information.
This is not the first time the PSC has tried to hide information from the public. In 2003 the state Supreme Court ruled against a PSC secrecy effort in Great Falls Tribune v. Public Service Commission.
Public's right to know
The court wrote, "non-human entities do not enjoy privacy rights under the right of privacy provision of the Montana Constitution." It also noted that documents filed with public agencies such as the PSC are presumed to be public.
In a special concurrence to the unanimous decision, Justice James C. Nelson wrote, "Following the enactment of the federal Bill of Rights, James Madison wrote: 'popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.'"
The justice went on to say, "If the public is to have any ability to know and understand how its government is exercising its remaining control over utilities, then individuals and organizations must have access to information that is filed by these utilities with government agencies, including the PSC."
Nelson went on to eloquently express why the media should be able to access information on behalf of the public.
"Though they have the right to do so, few people struggling to make a living and support their families have the time and the resources to comb through volumes of data and documents filed with the PSC and to fight with the utilities over what is confidential and what is not. Much less do these Montanans have the expertise to understand how this information may affect their lives and finances. … I submit that the public's right to know and another fundamental constitutional right — freedom of the press — are inextricably intertwined in cases such as this," wrote Justice Nelson.
It's not too late to tell the PSC majority that they are wrong. The proposed rule change will be published this month in the state's public register. A public comment period and public hearing will follow.
Speak up and tell the PSC not to bow to corporate pressure that tramples the public's rights.