HELENA — A Republican member of the Public Service Commission joined with the Democratic minority Friday to oust the GOP chairman and take over as leader of the dysfunctional panel that regulates utilities.
The removal of chairman Bill Gallagher and insertion of Travis Kavulla caps a tumultuous three months for the commission and dissolves a rare Republican majority for a panel that had been under Democratic control for most of the last 30 years.
Friday's meeting started as a discussion on how to reprimand vice chairman Brad Molnar over a recent trip to Washington, D.C. It quickly devolved into heated bickering and a bubbling over of grievances and grudges that have existed between members since the panel convened in January.
Molnar's travel with Gallagher to observe a settlement conference was kept secret from the rest of the committee, according to Kavulla and Democratic commissioner Gail Gutsche.
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.
"This lack of transparency is unacceptable and potentially harmful to the agency," Gutsche said. "Keeping commission travel a secret is inexcusable when public funds are being expended."
Molnar denied that he was trying to keep the trip a secret and said that he had every right to attend the talks between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and NorthWestern Energy because of his years of experience and knowledge of the issue.
"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.
In the ensuing argument, Kavulla and Gallagher accused each other of misdeeds in office that could not be substantiated and which neither would elaborate upon afterward. As the exchange grew more heated, a recess was hastily called, but the argument between Gallagher and Kavulla continued into the break.
Upon returning an hour later, Kavulla and Gutsche together voted for Gallagher's ouster as chairman. Gutsche also voted on behalf of the absent fifth member, Democrat John Vincent, who was away on a family emergency.
"I think the way this particular issue has been handled is not representative of good, solid leadership and it does not do anything to increase the respectability of the commission," Kavulla said. "The question is not really about travel. It's about lacking confidence in leadership."
A bitter Gallagher stepped down from his seat after the vote, saying he only took the chairmanship with reluctance, that he had never actually been in control of it and then casting doubts on Kavulla's ability to lead.
"You do not have the integrity, you do not have the maturity ... necessary to run this commission," Gallagher said.
Molnar then resigned as vice chairman. Kavulla and Gutsche elected themselves chairman and vice chairwoman.
Gutsche and Kavulla both said the travel controversy was the final straw in a series of alleged misdeeds by Molnar, and necessitated his ouster. They pointed to a ruling last year that Molnar violated state ethics law by improperly soliciting and receiving money from companies the PSC regulates.
Molnar shrugged off the accusations, saying he and Kavulla have been in conflict since the commission convened in January.
"There is a tension that started day one," he said.
Gallagher and Kavulla were elected to the commission in November, joining Molnar in what was touted at the time as a rare Republican majority for the PSC. That idea of unity disintegrated at the new commission's first meeting, when Molnar was seeking the chairman's seat as the veteran member of the majority.
Kavulla said Molnar lacked the temperament and credibility to lead, and he tried to get Molnar to sign a code of conduct in exchange for his vote. Molnar rejected the proposal, called Kavulla arrogant and it took the commission a day and a half to decide upon Gallagher as chairman. Gallagher took the position only on the condition that Molnar be named vice chairman.
At the end of Friday's meeting, Kavulla apologized from the chairman's seat for the circus-like atmosphere. Afterward, he said he not believe the tumult will affect how the commission conducts business, and that most of the matters that come before the panel are too technical to be decided by partisan politics.
"I believe we've turned a corner and we'll be able to move forward in a much more transparent matter," Kavulla said.