In yet another bizarre twist at the Montana Public Service Commission, Commissioner Travis Kavulla, a Republican, sided with Democrats Gail Gutsche and John Vincent to remove fellow Republican commissioner Bill Gallagher from the chairmanship.
Kavulla then took over as chairman of the board that regulates the state's utilities by a 3-2 vote.
Citing a lack of confidence in leadership, Kavulla and Gutsche engaged in a bitter back and forth with Gallagher and Republican Vice chairman Brad Molnar over a bevy of issues. The "straw that broke the camel's back," said Gutsche and Kavulla, was what they described as an effort to conceal Molnar's publicly financed trip to a meeting in Washington, D.C.
Friday's meeting started as a discussion on how to reprimand Molnar and quickly devolved into heated bickering and a bubbling over of grievances and grudges.
Gutsche and Kavulla alleged that the commission did not authorize Molnar to travel to the nation's capitol for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission settlement conference last month that Gallagher was attending. They said Molnar and Gallagher made a concerted effort to keep Molnar's participation in the trip a secret from the other three members of the commission.
Kavulla said the majority of the commission — himself and the two Democratic members — did not believe Molnar could be trusted to represent the commission at the conference, and they would have objected to his participation. Molnar knew that, which is why he kept the trip off his travel calendar and told Gallagher to keep it from the others, Gutsche said.
Molnar disputed those claims, saying that his trip was posted on the calendar and he made no effort to conceal his participation.
"What the hell did I do wrong? I went to a conference I was supposed to be at, as a majority member," he said during a break. "This is the harpy, partisan sniping that has brought this commission almost to a standstill."
A compromise had been worked out where Molnar would have paid about $800 in travel expenses out of his personal travel budget and he could keep his position as vice chairman.
But that deal fell apart when neither Molnar nor Gallagher expressed remorse or acknowledged wrongdoing, Kavulla said.
Kavulla dives into a great detail about his role in yesterday’s circus over at Electric City Weblog:
I do regret that this could not be solved through other means. But, sometimes, when you’re very clearly in the right—and others are very clearly in the wrong—you just need to draw a line. That’s just what happened here.
Click the link above and read the post. It has some good insight.
The current commission, of which Republicans gained a 3-2 majority with the November election, has suffered from hyper-partisanship and bickering from all sides since they convened in January. Republican commissioners Molnar and Gallagher accused Kavulla of making self-serving power plays behind closed doors with the Democrats on the panel in order to advance his own political career.
"Twenty years I have been doing this. In 20 years I have seen some of the biggest issues in the Legislature," said Molnar, a former legislator. "I have never, ever seen this level of infighting, back stabbing, self-aggrandizement, personal vendetta building. I have never seen anything like this in 20 years. If you want to have a partisan moment and say it's not a partisan moment, go right ahead."
Gallagher ascended to the chairmanship in January after a bitter two-day battle in which Kavulla, citing concerns about Molnar's "temperament and leadership abilities," refused to vote for Molnar as the chair. As a compromise, Gallagher agreed to serve as chairman only if Molnar would serve as vice chair. That arrangement was tenuous throughout the ensuing three months.
Gallagher said he never wanted to be chairman and never really had control of the body.
"I want it publically on the record the circumstance that I've been dealing with since day one, and that is your partisan politics, your joining with two (Democratic) members of the commission and playing party politics from the get go. I have not been in control of this commission since day one. You have been," Gallagher said. "It doesn't bother me to lose the chairmanship, with the exception in being disappointed that you didn't actually make the motion yourself."
Gallagher said Kavulla doesn't have the integrity, character or maturity to run the commission effectively.
Kavulla countered that Molnar and Gallagher have consistently put partisan politics and party loyalty above the work of the commission.
"This shouldn't be and isn't a partisan issue," Kavulla said. "Any Montanan would be outraged at the notion that one commissioner had asked another commissioner to keep their publically funded travel secret and that that had happened."
Kavulla said he's sick having the "party card played all over Helena."
"I'm happy to be a Republican. I'm proud to be a Republican. I will not run for office as anything else," Kavulla said. "But if you think party loyalty is going to keep me from speaking my conscience on an issue like this, Mr. Chairman, you really are sorely mistaken."
After removing Gallagher as chair, then vice-chairman Brad Molnar took the gavel and preempted an inevitable motion to remove him from that position and opted instead to resign from his leadership post.
The commission then elected Kavulla as chairman and Gutsche as vice chair by 3-2 votes, with Gutsche, Kavulla and Vincent voting "yes" and Molnar and Gallagher voting "no." Gutsche cast Vincent's vote by proxy as he was not at Friday's work session.
In an interview after the commission meeting, a visibly irritated Molnar called Kavulla a "sociopath" who gladly accepted Molnar's help during the election season and then stabbed him in the back.
"He was my creation," Molnar said. "Anybody could have beat (Democratic opponent) Don Ryan, but he never would have beat Jerry Black in the primary if it wasn't for me."
Molnar said Kavulla's actions Friday took control of the board away from conservative Republicans and handed it over to "liberal environmentalists" on the panel.
Gutsche, who along with Vincent refused to vote for Kavulla as chairman in January when the battle over control of the PSC first ignited, said she has faith in Kavulla's ability to lead the board going forward. She said Friday's events demonstrated that the panel can work together in a bipartisan way.
"We need to move this commissioner forward," Gutsche said. "We need to get down to doing the people's work instead of wasting time dealing with one rogue commissioner who never should have been in a leadership position in the first place."
Gutsche praised Kavulla's work ethic and tenacity in the job and said he will help the PSC "turn the corner."
"His work ethic is solid," Gutsche said. "He is the hardest worker, most studied, understands and asks highly technical questions of staff and legal questions of attorneys and he is always prepared."