With counting incomplete, Tranel leads Fielder in Region 4 PSC race

As an Olympic rower, Monica Tranel knew it was often only a matter of minutes before she’d either know the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. But on Tuesday night, it was going to be hours before she’d win the race for Region 4 Public Service commissioner.

Tranel leapt to an early lead with 63% of the vote over her opponent, state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, when Missoula County was one of the first counties to report election results. But as the other six counties in PSC Region 4 started to report, her lead started to shrink.

Ravalli County gave 66% of its votes to Fielder, and Granite County gave her 61% of its vote. At 10 p.m., Tranel was still 9,000 votes ahead, but Sanders, Lincoln, Mineral and Powell counties had yet to report.

Tranel credited the votes she did get in more conservative counties to the bike tour she took around the region this summer. It gave her a chance to talk to Montanans of all political leanings and helped her gain their support.

Still, many counties around Montana were slow to report their initial counts so Tranel just waited. When asked her plans should she lose the race, Tranel said Tuesday night that she wasn’t going to contemplate that yet.

“Those are the things I’m not really prepared to speak to right now. I’m not comfortable even thinking about that,” Tranel said. “Whether I’m on the commission or not, I’m deeply committed to systemic change on the commission. Because our world is changing and we need people who recognize that and are able to step up and bring people together.”

By “systemic change,” Tranel wants to return the rules of order and trust in science to the commission. The current commission has been characterized by numerous accusations of commissioners being less than professional, such as spying on each other and stealing papers. Other times they make unscientific claims such as saying wind turbines cause cancer.

Tranel said that kind of behavior erodes Montanans’ trust.

“I think we need to have people in office who are excellent at what they do and know what they do and will make decisions based on facts and science and the law. I think it’s necessary at every level of government. And I think it will have a tremendous calming effect on our country,” Tranel said.

The Region 4 PSC race itself gained notoriety on Oct. 11 when the Missoulian endorsed Fielder, saying because she was a Republican, she would be able to unite a Republican PSC that has seen its share of controversy and backstabbing.

Newspaper readers strongly opposed the endorsement. Within a day, the Missoulian retracted its endorsement of Fielder and backed Tranel instead, saying it had not considered Fielder’s connection to militia groups or federal land transfer efforts.

“It’s a terrible day when the media or anyone is endorsing someone when they say they will be able to work with the others on the commission as a single party. That’s irresponsible,” Tranel said.

The two Region 4 PSC candidates have different public service experience, but Tranel actually worked for the PSC.

Tranel is coming in as an attorney who has both worked for and presented arguments to the PSC for almost two decades. She knows the kind of issues the PSC deals with and what their mission should be: ensuring ratepayers – the majority of Montanans – have continued access to utility services that are affordable and reliable.

Fielder is terming out after eight years as a state senator where her job was to pass laws and appropriate money for state agencies. On her website, Fielder touted her experience in the Legislature and running the American Lands Council as reasons why she’d be a good commissioner. Some of that is good public service experience, but that’s where any similarity to being a public service commissioner ends.

Fielder said a commissioner’s job is to protect customers from price-gouging because the utilities the PSC regulates have a monopoly on their respective markets. That’s true. However, Fielders notes that companies should be allowed to “operate responsibly without being regulated to death.” She does not define how much qualifies as “to death.”

Requests for comment from Fielder were not answered.

According to the PSC website, the Public Service Commission is part banker and part court.

It sets the rates utilities can charge customers per month and approves any special charges. But many factors must be considered when those charges are set and the process is complex.

It must allow companies to make some profit but only enough be incentive to serve the customer.  That line will fall in different places for different people. Pro-business commissioners might allow more profit while those who side with customers might allow less. That’s why having a mix of commissioners is probably best, Tranel said.

But for the past eight years since Bob Lake defeated Missoula commissioner Gail Gutsche, the GOP have dominated the commission at a time when Northwestern Energy has seen many changes. That’s frustrated people trying to increase net-metering rates and generating limits for solar power projects or those trying to decrease Montana’s dependence on fossil fuels.

“It serves no one when we have single party rule and everyone else is silenced. We need different voices on the commission,” Tranel said. “Whoever my colleagues are, I will work with them professionally and respectfully and I will go into the job expecting that to be reciprocated.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.