HELENA — Hoping to streamline the process, the state Public Service Commission Tuesday adopted a new policy on how to release requested email records of commissioners.
Commissioners voted 4-1 to adopt the interim policy, which will require emails from PSC computers to be immediately sequestered, upon a request for their release, and then promptly reviewed for any privacy concerns before being released.
The five-member commission, which regulates utilities, adopted the policy in the wake of recent requests from two citizens who asked to see emails of various commissioners on PSC involvement in the bankruptcy case of Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative.
While the new policy may streamline the release of emails requested by the public, Commissioner John Vincent, D-Gallatin Gateway, said he’d prefer simply releasing anything on his state computer that anyone wants to see.
“The best policy for a commissioner is to state publicly that any information on their computer is public,” he said. “I think that cuts through a lot of fog. It just says, straight up, that this computer is for the public’s business, and if you want to see it, go ahead.”
However, Dennis Lopach, the PSC’s head attorney, said state law demands that state records that may include personal information be reviewed for possible violations of privacy before they are released.
The only commissioner voting against the policy was Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, who said he thought the privacy review should be conducted by an independent “arbiter” from outside the office.
The policy says the privacy review will be conducted by a PSC attorney and the head of the agency’s Centralized Services Bureau.
PSC attorney Justin Kraske said staff drew up the proposed policy to ensure that requests for email records are handled consistently and in a reasonable amount of time.
The commission voted Tuesday to adopt the rules as temporary policy, while sending the proposal to an internal policy committee to recommend possible adjustments, such as time limits for fulfilling the document requests or details on what requesters might be charged for obtaining the records.
Commission Chairman Travis Kavulla, R-Great Falls, said he doubts the issue of privacy will surface in many emails, and that people who send emails to the commissioner’s office computers shouldn’t have any expectation of privacy.
He also said he supports a time limit on fulfilling the requests, noting that one request for Commissioner Molnar’s emails in 2008 took 14 months to resolve. The Gazette State Bureau also requested some commissioner emails in 2008 and didn’t receive the complete documents until 11 months later.
Staffers and commissioners said privacy issues that could prevent the release of a commissioner email usually involve discussions of personnel matters or personal medical information.
Kraske said he couldn’t find any other state agency that had a written procedure for the release of email documents, prompting Kavulla to say that Tuesday’s vote “is just an opportunity to set a good example.”
The PSC received two separate requests in December from two citizens for email records from the various commissioners, involving any communication they had about the Southern Montana bankruptcy case.
The commission voted last November to attempt to become a party in the Southern Montana case in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. At a hearing last week, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ralph Kirscher took under advisement whether he would allow the PSC to become a party in the proceedings.