Monday, the Missoulian retracted its endorsement of Jennifer Fielder and recommended Monica Tranel.
Voters in Montana Public Service Commission District 4 are fortunate to be faced with a choice of two exceptionally strong candidates. Both have demonstrated a commitment to acting in the best interests of Montana consumers and a willingness to stand up to powerful interests. They are in agreement that alternative energy sources ought to be given a real chance to prove themselves on a level playing field. The current commission’s ongoing infighting and petty personal attacks have served Montana poorly. Democrat Monica Tranel and Republican Jennifer Fielder, who have been targeted by criticism from within and outside their respective political parties, have shown they are above such behavior. Either candidate would represent a significant improvement for the PSC, but Fielder has the edge due to her unique capacity to unite a fractured commission. Her fellow Republicans will respect her as a fiercely independent thinker and a no-nonsense leader. She is the breath of fresh air the commission so badly needs right now. The five members of the Montana PSC deal in highly technical issues concerning their quasi-judicial role of overseeing business related to the energy industry, telecommunications, railroads and pipelines. They even delve into taxi and waste disposal services. When it comes to direct technical expertise, Tranel clearly has the edge, having served as a staff attorney for the PSC and worked for the Consumer Counsel previously, as well as arguing cases as an attorney before the PSC. But Fielder is no slouch in this regard either. A state senator for Senate District 7 — which includes Mineral, Sanders and western Missoula counties — since 2013, Fielder is term-limited from running for re-election. As a legislator, she has advocated for low-cost energy. In the 2015 legislative session, she sponsored a bill to allow for aggregate net metering that was opposed by both NorthWestern Energy and some of her fellow Republicans, who allowed the bill to miss the transmittal deadline. And she provided one of the votes that helped stop Republican Sen. Tom Richmond’s Senate Bill 331, derided by critics as a “bailout” for NorthWestern. In a recent phone interview, Fielder explained that she fully supports businesses that want to make investments in public utility infrastructure, such as Colstrip — but that they should not be allowed to shift the risks and costs entirely onto ratepayers. District 4 covers Missoula, Lincoln, Sanders, Mineral, Granite, Powell and Ravalli counties. Of particular concern to Missoula voters, Fielder has said that she respects the right of local governments to pursue their own energy interests, such as Missoula’s memorandum of understanding with NorthWestern to provide 100% clean energy. She reiterated that she has a broad base of experience on issues that come before the PSC but comes with no pre-conceived preferences nor axes to grind. Fielder noted that the PSC plays an important role in railway and pipeline safety, and that commissioners must be diligent in carrying out their duties in these areas in particular. “For me, in terms of goals, it gets boiled down to four things. It’s important to work to ensure low-cost energy, safe communities, a healthy environment, and a strong economy,” she explained. In recognition of the enormity of the duties of a PSC commission, Fielder says she is ready to dig into the mountain of complex data that comes with PSC cases and prepared to devote her time to reviewing a huge amount of material. She pledged to resign her position as chief executive officer of the American Lands Council if elected. Fielder’s critics are troubled by her affiliation with this group and others, such as the Coalition of Western Property Owners that invited members of the Bundy family to speak in Paradise a couple of years ago. Her staunch support for transferring management of federal land to the states is certainly unpopular, and recently, she helped spread baseless rumors about Antifa supposedly traveling to Missoula to foment violence around the Black Lives Matter protests. Fielder promises to put politics aside, base her decisions on facts and keep her attention focused on the PSC’s regulatory responsibilities. If she can avoid getting sidetracked by unrelated issues or sucked into other commissioners’ drama, she will be a positive influence on the PSC and an asset to Montana consumers in District 4 and throughout the state.
Opinion Editor’s note: Missoulian Editor Gwen Florio is reporting on election stories and therefore was not involved in the Editorial Board’s candidate interviews, endorsement discussions or with any resulting editorial endorsements.