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PSC chair defends description of action on NW Energy rate case

Press release didn't mention vote increasing rates $6.5M
Posted at 6:07 PM, Nov 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-14 12:49:14-05

Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson on Wednesday defended his initial, disputed description of an Oct. 30 PSC vote on a NorthWestern Energy electric rate increase, saying he “was not trying to hide anything from anybody.”

Yet he did tell reporters that his statement on the vote should have said the PSC approved a $6.5 million rate increase – information not included in a press release issued two days after the meeting, which wasn’t covered by the media.

“Knowing what I know today, I would have put another sentence in there talking about the $6.5 million,” Johnson said. “My perspective was, OK, we got this part (of the rate case) done – now we’ll focus on the big job that’s a few weeks down the road.”

Johnson’s meeting with reporters came one day after Commissioner Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman, publicly chastised Johnson for putting out misleading information about the Oct. 30 vote.

“I can only apologize for those at the PSC who collaborated, apparently in secret, to put out a false story that hid from view the important consumer-related actions of that day,” he wrote. “I cannot explain why it happened, nor why it was never corrected.”

The PSC met Oct. 30 and voted 5-0 to approve the rate increase, which is part of NorthWestern Energy’s first general rate case in nine years. It’s arguably the biggest case before the PSC this year.

No reporters attended the little-publicized meeting, and the PSC issued a press release on the vote two days later.

The release said the commission voted to extend the deadline for the final order on the rate case until Dec. 26, but made no mention of the vote that approved the rate increase and new rate structure.

That structure increased electric rates for homeowners by 1.68 percent, but lowered rates for larger business customers of NorthWestern.

The release also did not mention that the PSC has yet to rule on other elements of the rate case and plans to do so at a Nov. 25 meeting. Among those elements is a controversial proposal by NorthWestern to change rates for rooftop-solar power systems – a move that solar-power installers say will make new systems unaffordable for homeowners.

The vote on the rate hike wasn’t reported publicly until a week later, after Koopman contacted the Billings Gazette. MTN News first reported on the rate increase last Thursday.

Johnson said he didn’t mention the rate-hike approval because he saw the Oct. 30 vote as part of the larger case, which would be completed later this year.

“I was proceeding from the perspective of, `OK, we’ve now approved an element of a work product that is in progress, that we’re completing as we move through the month,” he said. “We were being televised, live-streamed …. There certainly was no effort to hide anything.”

Koopman said the release should have been run by PSC staff and other members of the commission.

“If any of the staff had looked at this, they would have said, `This is not what happened; you got it wrong,’” he told MTN News Wednesday.

Johnson said as chairman, he is authorized to be the spokesman for the PSC, and that since the rate increase passed by a 5-0 vote, he didn’t see the need to consult all of the other commissioners.

“If every single one of these statements had to be vetted by all five commissioners, we’d be grinding to a halt,” he said.

Johnson said when the final order on the case is completed later this year, all commissioners will be involved in crafting statements on the vote.