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RED LODGE — Travis Kavulla, chair of the Montana Public Service Commission, has no authority over electric cooperatives in Montana.

But the self-described conservative didn’t mince words as he critiqued Southern Montana Electric, the Billings-based generation and transmission cooperative comprised of five south-central electric cooperatives and Great Falls’ Electric City Power.

During a recent meeting near Red Lodge, Kavulla’s presentation represented one side of a controversy that has caused a division among members of the Red Lodge-based Beartooth Electric Cooperative and dissension among the entities that make up Southern.

Kavulla targeted Southern for what he described as a history of poor management decisions. He also criticized Southern, which has imposed three rate hikes since December, for building the gas-fired Highwood Generation Station at a time when the umbrella cooperative has been selling excess power at a loss.

“I honestly cannot find another co-op so out of balance” between supply and demand,” he said.

Speaking to a mostly supportive crowd, Kavulla’s presentation compared the average monthly rates between customers of NorthWestern Energy and the Beartooth Electric Co-operative, one of Southern’s member co-ops. According to Kavulla, a Beartooth customer pays $131.48 for 800 kilowatts (including base charge) versus $85.15 for the NorthWestern customer.

“I’m not here to say NorthWestern’s rates are low,” he said. “It’s just that Beartooth’s and other members (of Southern’s) happen to be higher.”

Likewise, Kavulla compared how the process for a regulated utility differs from the process used by Southern in proposing and building the Highwood Generation Station. A regulated utility must follow a specified process involving detailed documents, an opportunity for data requests from other parties, a public hearing and public access to information.

Southern, he said, operates on “vague” agendas, last-minute decisions and closed meetings.

“The process is opaque and rapid,” he said.

Following Kavulla’s presentation, the question-and-answer session at times turned into a verbal sparring session between Kavulla and Tim Gregori, CEO of Southern.

Gregori charged Kavulla with cherry-picking information to support his agenda. He also cited Kavulla for leaving key information out of a rate comparison chart and he questioned some of the figures that Kavulla used to depict Southern’s excess power supply.

“Mr. Kavulla was disingenuous at best,” Gregori said. “Inflammatory populist comments do no one any good.”

Kavulla, who has been subpoenaed by Southern for his involvement with Electric City Power, was recorded during Tuesday’s meeting by a court reporter hired by Southern. The court reporter’s presence and the crowd’s strident tone seemed indicative of the tension among cooperative members.

Kavulla wrapped up the meeting by asking all parties to avoid inflating their disagreements with personal hatred, but he encouraged co-op members to stay involved.

“No one’s going to ride in and save you,” he said. “You have to save yourselves.”

Also during the meeting, two Beartooth members announced their interest in running for trustee positions. If nominated, Dan Dutton of Belfry would seek the seat currently held by Martin Kimmet of Clark, Wyo., and Pat Hoffman of Roberts would run for the position currently held by Lance Million, also of Roberts.

Tuesday’s gathering came on the heels of two informational meetings organized by Beartooth Electric. Gregori, who lead the earlier presentations, is scheduled to speak again at 7 p.m. on Aug.17 at the Montana State University Billings Extension Office in Joliet.