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BILLINGS GAZETTE EDITORIAL PAGE | Sep 18, 2020
In February of this benighted year, faced with increasing evidence of dysfunction and skullduggery within the Public Service Commission, The Billings Gazette and Lee Montana Newspapers officially requested public records, including internal emails and documents, from the commission.
We were not alone in wanting to be able to shed more light on the clown car which ironically carries the words “Public Service” in its title. The Great Falls Tribune and Yellowstone Public Radio made similar official requests.
After nearly three months of dithering, the PSC decided on its response — which was to sue us.
Finally, this week, a district judge ruled that yes, indeed, the commission had to turn over the public records.
Even against the backdrop of what we already knew about the six-figure-salaried squabblers, the information gained by FOIA and court action is jaw-dropping.
Laid bare in the hundreds of emails and documents is, as the Billings Gazette’s Tom Lutey reports, “a pattern of spying, embarrassing email leaks, and trumped-up claims that led to police involvement, which led nowhere.”
Childish pranks, bullying and the theft and leaking of personal emails were commonplace. Implicated in some of the unsavory practices were Drew Zinecker, the commission’s communications director, commissioner Randy Pinocci of Sun River, and Mandi Hinman, PSC administrator.
The commissioners put Zinecker on a paid leave of absence in the spring, meaning he continues to receive his $66,040 a year salary. Hinman has continued to work throughout the ordeal. Hinman is paid $100,963.20.
The released documents also indicate that in 2019, the Montana Legislative Auditor’s office investigated Hinman’s pay after learning that she had received pay raises of more than $21,000 since 2016.
The whole situation is so ludicrous that it would be funny except for the fact that the PSC actually has serious work to do on the behalf of Montana’s ratepayers.
We have previously advocated the dissolution of the PSC in favor of an appointed board. There is certainly nothing in this disclosure to disabuse us of that idea. The information is indicative of an utter miscarriage of public service.
But whether or not the commission changes structure down the road, the electorate is well-served by having this information at its disposal for the 2020 election.
We hope voters heed this, and respond accordingly.