Mark Sweeney looks to bring fresh voice to Montana PSC

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Mark Sweeney hauls campaign material up the stairs at The Trail Head in Missoula. Sweeney, a Democrat, is running for a seat on the Montana Public Service Commission in District 4. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

It was back in 1984 when Mark Sweeney signed on with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to work as a hatcheries biologist. For 27 years, the graduate of Western Montana College tended paddlefish on the Yellowstone River and genetically pure cutthroat trout at the Washoe Park Fish Hatchery in Anaconda.

Sweeney has since taken an interest in clean energy, consumer rights and politics. Sensing that Montana stands on the cusp of a new era in power generation, he plans to make another run at the Montana Public Service Commission – a tough task for a Democrat looking to break the political body’s all-Republican stronghold.

But Sweeney, a third-generation Montanan, stands undeterred by party persuasion. He believes times are quickly changing and he remains unsatisfied with the PSC’s recent performance on several fronts, including the way it has handled the city of Missoula’s efforts to acquire Mountain Water Co. He’s not afraid to mention his support for Uber – the mobile ride request company – or the state’s efforts to adhere to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

“We’re at the cusp of change with electrical generation,” Sweeney said before a recent campaign rally. “Coal has been so important and such an active part of our economy, but it’s eventually going to be phased out. We need to get ahead of that curve and be sure we transition to other reliable and clean sources of energy.”

Sweeney, who now sells real estate and runs a consulting firm focused on aquatic wildlife, came into politics later than some. He spent his early years with FWP , launching a career that began tending paddlefish and walleye on the Yellowstone River.

He later transferred to Libby to participate in a study with Bonneville Power. There, tucked away in the state’s northwest corner, he studied the effects Lake Koocanusa draw-downs had on native trout species.

“It was my first introduction with hydro-electric facilities and how they’re operated,” Sweeney said, adding that he watched closely as NorthWestern Energy acquired its dams. “I know NorthWestern does a good job, but they have huge fisheries below the dams. They know those resources exist, but it’s always good to have someone check it.”

Sweeney entered politics in 2006 by running and winning a seat as a commissioner in Anaconda-Deer Lodge County. While in office, NorthWestern built the Dave Gates gas-fired electrical station west of town, a project that again tickled Sweeney’s interest in power.

“It got me interest in power production and regulations,” he said. “That little facility was a real boon to Anaconda-Deer Lodge County. It brought taxes to the community and a lot of jobs during the two year construction period.”

While Sweeney made a run for a seat on the Public Service Commission in 2012, he lost the primary race to then-Commissioner John Vincent, a fellow Democrat from Gallatin Gateway. Vincent later lost the general election to Republican Roger Koopman.

But Sweeney has since moved to Phillipsburg, placing him in the PSC’s District Four, which includes Missoula County. The seat is currently held by Bob Lake – a Hamilton Republican.

“I’m discouraged with the current political atmosphere at the PSC and I know we can do better,” Sweeney said. “I’d like to take what I learned in that first race and apply it to this race. I want to represent the consumer.”

To Sweeney, representing the consumer crosses a number of issues. They include clean energy, railroad safety, Uber, and the rates consumers pay for services. They also include water and Sweeney’s belief that local resources belong under local control.

While Sweeney jokes that many people give him a puzzled look when he mentions the PSC, that’s not true in Missoula. For the past two years, the city has been locked in a costly legal fight to take ownership of its privately owned drinking water system, and the PSC has played a role in the legal maneuvering.

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Mark Sweeney

The commission maintains that it’s doing its job by regulating Mountain Water, since the utility remains privately owned. But others say the PSC has bumbled the process and that it continues to cater to corporate might at the exclusion of local citizens.

“I don’t think the PSC should have a say whether Missoula takes that over or not,” Sweeney said. “It’s ending up in the courts, and sometimes that’s where things need to be resolved, unfortunately.”

Having served in local government, Sweeney holds his own personal feelings on the Mountain Water case. From a logistical standpoint, he said, owning the water mains makes it easier for a city to plan growth. From a moral standpoint, he added, water is an essential local resource that belongs under local control.

“For planning growth, it seems like it would be much easier to be owned by a municipality,” he said. “Missoula is the only city in the state that doesn’t own its water system. I think (District Court Judge Karen Townsend) was right – they do have the right to purchase that system.”

Sweeney also believes the state should get ahead of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. While the transition from coal to renewable energy will pose challenges, he said, it’s not the roadblock some have made it out to be.

The proposal sets carbon limits for the nation’s power generating facilities, including those in Montana. Sweeney said the next PSC must work to implement the plan by ensuring utility rates remain consumer friendly.

“That’s a difficult transition, but we have time to look at this,” he said. “Gov. Steve Bullock appointed a good group to his advisory council – they’re the right mix of people to take us in the right direction. My job in the PSC would be to make sure consumers have a seat at that table.”

Sweeney is reluctant to criticize the current PSC, though he agrees with the Montana Legislative Audit Division and its recent report, which scolded the PSC for lacking a rail safety plan and for not staffing enough inspectors to cover the state.

The report suggested moving the rail safety program from PSC to another department within state government. It said funding requirements must also be considered, something the PSC doesn’t control.

“With the amount of coal trains and oil tankers coming through our communities, rail safety is a real concern,” Sweeney said. He believes a rail-car tax could generate additional funds for safety. “There could be an opportunity to put more people on the ground looking at tracks and railroad crossings.”

Sweeney said the PSC must be more responsive to consumers and local tax payers.

“We deserve a say and a seat of the table,” he said. “Consumers will have seat at the table with me, and a voice.”