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A Montana Public Service Commission decision to hire an executive director to oversee its operations in the wake of an audit that found a litany of financial abuses seems to indicate the commissioners realize they need adult supervision.

The damning audit also raises questions about why we have the commission at all, given commissioners’ apparent propensity to fritter away state money on themselves along with their historic tendency to rubber stamp proposals from the largest utility it regulates.

The audit found thousands of dollars in travel and other expenses that were not approved or documented adequately according the commission’s own policies. It even found some missing receipts were falsified and backdated by staff members during the course of the audit. The Legislative Audit Division report found violations “indicative of an unhealthy organizational culture and ineffective leadership” and serious enough to qualify as “abuse.”

The commission, which has an annual budget of about $4.8 million, was created by law in 1975 to regulate utilities — power and phone companies — as well as interstate railroads and other transportation services. It was created to ensure the financial viability of essential services while looking out for the interests of consumers of those services.

But the PSC has largely approved policies and proposals by the state’s largest utility, NorthWestern Energy, which has demonstrated little interest in alternatives to fossil fuels. One commissioner was even caught on a hot mike during a meeting break disparaging advocates for solar energy sources.

Perhaps aggravating the situation is the fact that voters, apparently leaning toward a more conservative ideology, have chosen all Republican commissioners — each of whom get a base salary of $109,000 year — for the past nine years. In their future deliberations, those voters may want to consider that a single party commission invites a good-old-boy culture that tends to look the other way when individuals play fast and loose with the rules for their own benefit.

The audit report was received this week by the Legislative Audit Committee. Committee members should, at the least, consider recommending sweeping changes to oversight provisions for the PSC sufficient to prevent the abuses from happening in the future.


Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Michael Wright, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Charles Rinker, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

To send feedback on editorials, either leave a comment on the page below or write to citydesk@dailychronicle.com.

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Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Michael Wright, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

To send feedback on editorials, write to citydesk@dailychronicle.com.