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Next month's annual meeting of Southern Montana Electric will remain closed to the public, according to an informal decision made Friday during the board's February meeting.

Despite a request to open the meeting to customers of the rural electric cooperatives that make up Southern, Tim Gregori, Southern's CEO, reminded the board that Southern's membership is limited to the six individual board members who represent Southern's five member cooperatives and the city of Great Falls.

Gregori noted that for several years, all board members of member cooperatives have been allowed to attend, but that it's rare for generation and transmission cooperatives to invite customer attendance.

To date, Southern's meetings have remained closed to the public. Last summer, The Billings Gazette initiated litigation seeking to open the meetings. The Gazette based its position on the fact that the city of Great Falls, a public entity, participates as a member of Southern. With the legal decision pending, the parties reached an agreement allowing a Gazette representative, but not co-op customers, to attend monthly meetings.

Meanwhile, John Prinkki, a member of the Southern board and chairman of the board of Beartooth Electric Cooperative, said recent informational meetings organized for Beartooth customers have provided an avenue for meaningful discussions.

"From all measures, it's been good outreach and a good thing to do," he said. "In some ways I think we wish we'd have done it sooner."

Beartooth Electric has already held town-hall-style meetings in Rapelje, Nye and Clark, Wyo. The final two informational meetings are scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 22 at the fire hall in Columbus and 7 p.m. Feb. 23 at the county extension office in Joliet.

Friday's Southern meeting included a report from Kevin Cavanaugh, project principal for engineering services on the Highwood Generation Station outside Great Falls. Much of Highwood's infrastructure is nearing completion and the 128,000-pound gas turbine, as well as the 100,000-pound gas generator, have arrived on site. Phase one of the plant — the 40-megawatt simple-cycle facility is currently the only phase approved and financed — is estimated to be up and running by mid-August. Phase two, which would increase the plant's capacity to 120 megawatts but has yet to earn board approval, could be on line as early as 2014.

As the board mulled trends in electricity costs, Gregori noted that rates have softened in the past two years. With early runoff in the Columbia Basin this spring, prices have sagged, he said. "Unless we have a cooler than normal spring and summer, we're going to see some spikes in prices in July," he predicted.

Gregori said the blended rate for all Southern members, which varies monthly, averaged $56.17 per megawatt hour, several dollars cheaper than the comparable rate for customers of NorthWestern Energy.

"Even with transmission, your rates are lower than theirs," Gregori said.