The overreaction to the announcement that the Montana Public Service Commission was considering rescinding administrative rule 38.2.5031, which concerns disclosure of executive pay, is both misdirected and ill-informed. Since the commission’s January motion, a steady flow of fear-inciting rhetoric has been showing up in newspapers and through the special-interest network.
I would respectfully request that everyone who decides to comment on the value of the rule please do yourself and the public a huge favor and read both the law as it stood for many years and the rule as it is currently written. The Montana Freedom of Information Act is very straightforward; any document that is in the possession of a government agency is available for scrutiny by the public unless the owner of the document is granted a protective order to seal the information from public view. That order requires an individual case-by-case determination and is just as likely to be denied as is to be granted; it must meet the test of causing harm if allowed to be made public in order to receive protection.
This brings us to the firestorm about the motion to rescind rule 38.2.5031. This rule came into being in October 2010. It was a campaign year and the sponsor may have felt that it was a vote-getting issue. The rule was to “enhance” current law but it was met with an immediate filing of a lawsuit to prevent its enactment. That lawsuit is still pending in District Court. It continues to be a distraction and if not settled, could prove to be expensive and very time-consuming.
Let’s look at just what the rule serves to accomplish. As written, the rule states that “the commission will not afford proprietary confidential treatment to the compensation of the top three Montana employees.” That statement is reiterated again in the body of the rule and then at the end of the paragraph it states that, “If a Public Utility or employee contends that the circumstance of the privacy of an employee’s compensation warrants a protective order they may seek issuance of such an order.“ This serves to return the issue back to the original law.
The lawsuit that is pending only serves to add costs and distraction to the PSC’s process and obligation of establishing fair and equitable utility rates for Montana. The Public Service Commission has the responsibility of determining rates, not messing around with constitutional law. As a 10-year member of the Legislature, I can assure you, rule 38.2.5031 is unnecessary, it serves no useful purpose, clutters up code, duplicates existing law and, as written, is totally ambiguous. It needs to be rescinded.
The people of Montana elected the commission to work with the Consumer Counsel, the utilities and other interested parties to keep lights on, heat and air conditioning operating, other public services functioning, all at fair prices and dependable delivery.
It is time for us to move away from the headline-grabbing, politically motivated rhetoric and fear mongering, and get back to the task at hand – managing our public services.
Bob Lake is a member of the Montana Public Service Commission representing District 4, which includes Lincoln, Sanders, Mineral, Missoula, Powell, Granite and Ravalli counties.