HELENA - The Montana Public Service Commission deadlocked Monday over choosing its new chairman, as incoming Commissioner Travis Kavulla, R-Great Falls, refused to support fellow Republican Brad Molnar, citing concerns about Molnar's leadership and past actions as a commissioner.
The unusual impasse, played out over 3 1/2 hours of inconclusive votes and recessed meetings, left the regulatory panel unable to accomplish its first legally required act of a new term: selecting a chair.
After a final series of deadlocked votes just before 5 p.m., Molnar, who represents southeastern Montana, said commissioners would meet again Tuesday morning and attempt to resolve the issue.
The PSC regulates electric, gas, telephone and other utilities in Montana.
Kavulla and Commissioner Bill Gallagher, R-Helena, swept to easy victories in November, giving Republicans 3-2 control of the five-member commission for the first time since 2002.
Molnar, now the senior member of the commission, said shortly after the election that he expected to become the PSC's next chairman.
But Kavulla, a 26-year-old political newcomer who won election to District 1 in northern Montana, said several weeks ago he might not support Molnar as chair. He noted Molnar's involvement in an ongoing ethics case, in which the state political practices commissioner ruled last fall that Molnar violated state ethics laws and should pay more than $20,000 in fines and costs. Molnar has asked a judge to review the decision.
Kavulla made good on that threat Monday, as he abstained from voting after Gallagher nominated Molnar as chair. With the two Democrats voting against Molnar, the vote deadlocked at 2-2, with Gallagher and Molnar supporting Molnar.
Kavulla said he would support Molnar only if the latter signed a "chairman's code of conduct" that Kavulla first showed Molnar on Sunday.
During a break in the meeting Monday, Molnar angrily denounced the idea of signing the document, saying Kavulla wasn't going to dictate Molnar's behavior.
"You're not going to do it, Travis," he said, confronting Kavulla. "You are 26 years old. You're going to tell me how to live my life? I don't think so."
Molnar said if he signed the document, "I'd be the biggest lowlife motherf- whoever climbed out from under a rock."
Kavulla replied that he thought the conditions are "pretty reasonable."
The code of conduct had nine conditions, most of which directed Molnar not to act on behalf of the commission without its approval.
It also said the chairman "will not threaten or commit other acts of political reprisal," file any lawsuit against any part of the government, or file any ethics or political practices complaint against any commissioner or legislator.
"The message is, mellow out a little," Kavulla said later in an interview. "If you're going to be chairman, we can't have this sort of free-lancing, rabble-rousing technique."
Kavulla said he drew up the conditions after hearing concerns from state lawmakers with key positions on legislative energy committees and professionals who practice before the PSC.
Commissioners made several attempts to choose a chair Monday before finally going home.
Commissioner John Vincent, D-Gallatin Gateway, nominated fellow Democrat Gail Gutsche of Missoula as an alternative choice, saying he had concerns about Molnar's ethics case overshadowing his role as commission chairman.
But all three Republicans repeatedly voted against Gutsche, saying the public voted in a Republican majority on the PSC and therefore the chair shouldn't be a Democrat.
Kavulla tried to nominate Gallagher as chair, but Gallagher refused the nomination several times, saying he wasn't qualified.
"I am grateful and I am humbled by the faith that you have in me ... but I'm going to decline once again," he said just before 5 p.m. "Given the importance of the (commission's) budget ... the experience that Mr. Molnar wields is going to be critical to get us through this legislative session."
Kavulla also nominated himself as chair late in the day, but all other commissioners voted against him.
Molnar said he should be the chair because of his experience and his influence before the Republican-controlled Legislature.
He also distributed a response to Kavulla, calling him arrogant and inexperienced, and accusing him of accepting campaign donations from lawyers who practice before the PSC and improperly attending an Atlanta conference in December with former Commissioner Greg Jergeson on electric transmission issues.
Kavulla said the trip to the conference was cleared by Jergeson and PSC staff, that he returned one of the attorney donations, and that he did not know that the other donations came from attorneys who represented clients before the PSC.
"I intend to treat each case that comes before the PSC fairly," he said. "I also think it's highly ironic to be lectured about ethics by Commissioner Molnar."
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.