Leaders say attendees would be reluctant to speak if reporter was there

HELENA - Montana Democratic Party officials Monday night barred a reporter from attending a party strategy session on electric deregulation.

State Democratic Party Chairman Bob Ream ordered a Missoulian State Bureau reporter out of the meeting at Helena's public library by asserting it was not a public meeting. Ream did not put the issue up for a vote at the meeting, at least before the reporter was told to leave.

"We'll move over to our office if you want to push the issue," Ream told the reporter.

However, Mike Pichette, a Montana Power Co. lobbyist was allowed to attend because he is an active Democrat and the party's former executive director.

"It's our opportunity to discuss strategy and talk about the issue," state Democratic Chairman Bob Ream told the reporter. "There's a lot of talk of initiatives and we want to talk about them."

"It's our opportunity to talk about the Republican disaster with deregulation and how people of Montana are treated by it," Ream added.

Democrats haven't controlled the Montana governorship since 1989 and have been in the minority in both the state House and Senate during the four legislative sessions since 1995. They are hoping to turn the utility deregulation issue to their advantage in 2002.

Ream said he had turned down on the same grounds advance telephone requests from a reporter for the Missoula Independent and a columnist for the Billings Outpost and Butte Weekly to attend the meeting, and it wouldn't be fair to allow the Lee reporter to attend.

Pressed about why a key strategy meeting should be conducted behind closed doors, Ream said he talked to some participants who told him they wouldn't be candid if a reporter were there and some might leave the meeting. Ream said he hoped to come out of the meeting with a unified group, not a divided one, and believed that would be more likely to occur without reporters there.

Political parties are under no legal obligation under Montana law to open their meetings to reporters or other outsiders, although Democrats historically have opened all of their convention meetings the past decade or so, and Republicans have done so the past two or three years.

The meeting attracted a crowd of 50 people. Ream said he invited certain Democrats. It wasn't advertised to all Democrats, but word apparently spread.

Attending were about a dozen Democratic legislators, including some leaders, Attorney General Mike McGrath, state Auditor John Morrison, Public Service Commissioner Bob Rowe and 2000 U.S. Senate candidate Brian Schweitzer. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch had staff members present.

The agenda called for a discussion of policy options, sorting out the Montana Democratic Party position and how it affects its candidates from top to bottom and which Democratic initiatives and referendums the party should back. It also covered what the opposition would do with initiatives, how Democrats are getting the message out and what kind of advertising media, field organizing and fund raising the party should undertake.

A paper prepared by Sen. Ken Toole, D-Helena, discussed the advantages and disadvantages of several potential initiatives, including:

Repealing the 1997 utility deregulation law, which would reinstate a utility's obligation to serve and provide power for Montanans, with the prices regulated by the Montana Public Service Commission.

Reregulating the power generators that were deregulated by the 1997 law and making sure they are firmly committed to Montana customers.

Buying the dams that were once owned by Montana Power Co., but which now are owned by PPL Montana, a subsidiary of Pennsylvania Power and Light,

Buying back all power generators from PPL Montana.

Purchasing all the power generating plants and the transmission and distribution system.

Modifying the power authority law and securing public ownership for the system.

Imposing an excess profits tax on power sold at high profit margins and dedicating some of the proceeds to energy-bill assistance and energy conservation.

Toole's report suggested that each of the proposed ballot solutions should be evaluated against these criteria: it should benefit small customers, it should pose minimum risk of public funds, is it capable of standing on its own without passage of another measure, it should cause no environmental damage, it should be a long-term solution, and the solution should change current relationships between energy corporations and consumers.

"At this stage, it seems advisable to get several measures approved and take them all to the public," Toole concluded in the report.

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