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Gazette opinion: Resign, Comfort Class Commissioners

Gazette opinion: Resign, Comfort Class Commissioners

The Public Service Commission is not worthy of the name.

"Public"? Absolutely not. The commission has been so averse to public disclosure of its activities that one of the recent times the Billings Gazette was forced to file a public information request to the commission to get public records, the commission responded by suing the newspaper. It was, of course, an utterly worthless lawsuit pursued at state expense, which resulted in the commission being ordered to turn over the very documents the Gazette requested.

"Service"? Not so much. The commission, despite its avowed conservative ideology, has been utterly profligate with public funds. Take former commission chair Brad Johnson, for instance. According to a legislative audit, Commissioner Johnson upgraded a plane flight to Washington, D.C., on PSC business from coach to "comfort class," a $1,414 charge, while a fellow commissioner rode in steerage for $515.

The Comfort Class Commission might be a better name.

Auditors found numerous instances of travel money spent "carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose."

How surprising: Comfort Class Commissioner Johnson was the only member of the commission not to attend a Monday hearing on the audit.

Arrogant, shameful, disgraceful, take your pick. We'll go for all three.

Republican state Sen. Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton said Monday that the audit shows "an unfortunate display of what I would call government irresponsibility and the government not being accountable to its citizens. I'm embarrassed by that."

Auditors found the PSC books were inaccurate by as much as $100,000 over two years ending June 30, 2020, during which time debts went unpaid and revenue went uncollected.

Really, Montana? Is this the best we can do?

It is good to remember that the core issues of the way the PSC actually does its job of regulation are separate from the recent dysfunction, secrecy and irresponsible spending. But if commissioners treat the peripheral issues of their jobs like this, how are we to have any confidence in their actual decision-making?

Current PSC Chairman James Brown of Dillon, who was elected last fall, after the audit period, said he and fellow new member Jennifer Fielder are working to bring professionalism to the commission.

That sounds like a good idea. An even better idea would be for the remaining commissioners who were serving in their $109,000-per-year jobs during the audited period — Johnson, Randy Pinocci, and Billings' Tony O'Donnell — to resign immediately. Mr. Johnson, on your way out, a check to reimburse the state for your inappropriate travel charges would be ... comforting.

This is not a partisan matter. The PSC is all Republican. If the holdover commissioners do resign — and make no mistake about it, they should — they would be replaced by Republicans. Politics is not at issue. Competence and integrity are.

The Billings Gazette Editorial Board includes President and Publisher Dave Worstell, Regional Editor David McCumber, and Chief Photographer Larry Mayer.


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