Four Republicans and two Democrats are running for an open seat in District 5 of the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC), including four candidates who call Flathead County home — and all of whom tell voters why they are best suited for one of the highest paying positions on the state payroll.
The crowded field of a PSC district that encompasses Flathead, Lake, Glacier, Lewis and Clark, Teton and Pondera counties will soon be winnowed as candidates from both major parties head to a primary contest on June 7. The high level of interest in serving on the state’s five-member Supervisory Board, which is responsible for regulating utility companies, coincides with a multi-year period in which the PSC has been the subject of scrutiny, resulting in a damning legislative audit and a costly lawsuit stemming from an email leak scandal between current and former commissioners and staff.
These irregularities have cast a shadow over the PSC and raised the profile of the 2022 election as Montana voters have the opportunity to elect a new representative in District 5, as well as District 1, which encompasses the northern part -is sprawling state. In this district, two Republican primary challengers face off against incumbent Commissioner Randy Pinocci in a race that has no Democratic contenders and will be decided in the primary election.
In PSC District 5, by contrast, the vacant seat is vacated by incumbent Republican Commissioner Brad Johnson of East Helena, who cannot run again due to term limits. The race has drawn interest from two Democrats: John Repke of Whitefish, who recently worked as chief financial officer for local wood products maker SmartLam, and Kevin Hamm of East Helena, a telecommunications professional. A four-way Republican contest has also materialized among primary candidates, including: Derek Skees, a longtime Republican lawmaker from Kalispell who can no longer run for the state House of Representatives due to term limits; Annie Bukacek, a Kalispell physician who served on the Flathead City-County Board of Health but resigned from that position to avoid possible conflicts of interest when running for office; Dean Crabb, a Marion resident and certified journeyman lineman; and Joe Dooling of Helena, a former congressional candidate and breeder.
While recent PSC news has increasingly focused on commissioners rather than the work they do on behalf of Montana residents, the Beacon spoke to PSC 5 candidates about their experience and the why they show up.
Flathead Valley voters likely know Skees not only because the conservative Republican first served in the Montana Legislature from 2011 to 2013, but also because he took a two-year hiatus from the State House. to run for the PSC in 2013, when he was unsuccessful in his campaign against Johnson. Since then, Skees has served three terms again as state representative in House District 11 and chairs the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee. He previously chaired the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee (ETIC) which oversees the PSC and has touted his experience in these roles as giving him a degree of first-hand experience.
“I served on the committee that oversees the PSC,” Skees said. “I was there through the email scandal, I was there through two failed audits, and I’ve had a ton of energy policy experience over the past eight years. The commission has had issues in the past and there needs to be a commitment to changing the culture internally and ensuring that there is accountability at all levels.
Bukacek joined the local health board in early 2020 and is best known for her criticism of the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as an anti-vaccine campaigner and for helping to organize protests against the public health mitigation measures designed to slow the spread of the virus. She said her interest in running for the PSC is the culmination of experience gained as a business owner, physician and “advocate for the needs of citizens.”
“In my practice, I have learned to charge enough money to meet patients’ medical needs without depriving low-income patients of good medical care. It prepared me to make the same kind of fair utility pricing decisions,” Bukacek wrote in an email after declining a phone interview. “I will be an advocate for all Montanans, providers and consumers.”
According to Bukacek, the scandals that have plagued the commission in recent years could have been avoided with increased transparency, which she said she would bring to the body.
“I am not beholden to anyone and I will not put up with shenanigans. I will not sign backdated expense vouchers,” she wrote, alluding to the findings of an audit that found some commissioners violated department policies. “I’m going to weigh every expense against the good it will do Montana. To the extent permitted by law, my expense record and my votes will be open to public inspection.
Crabb, a 54-year-old Marion resident who will be retiring next month from a career in the electrical industry, said he was running because the Montana PSC not only needed a cultural reform, but also experienced commissioners in public services, not career politicians.
“I honestly don’t think I’m going to win because I’m not a politician. I don’t have a name. I have about 100 panels and I’ve only taken out about 50. I’ve spoken to someone from a website, but it’s not up yet I’ve put my phone number there, so anyone can call me and I’ll just sit here and talk all public service day. It’s been my whole life,” he said. “I’ve had 30 years of experience and I know what’s going on there, but Montana keeps electing a group retired politicians looking for money.”
Repke, Whitefish’s retired financial officer, said he would like to see a shift away from the politics and scandal that characterize Montana’s beleaguered PSC, noting that most state utility commissions require appointees and required levels of finance experience. , bookkeeping, and rate setting — qualifications that could help unsuccessful Montana board veterinarian applicants.
“Not only do they require certain levels of expertise, but they also often require minority party representation,” Repke said. “And having a commission in Montana that’s made up entirely of the same party, and really the same conservative wing of the same party, doesn’t result in good self-regulation of the commission itself.” So you have to have people who have an opposing point of view and a different set of standards, and I think that would raise the standards by which the commission operates. As a commissioner, I would work to protect taxpayers, I would be completely transparent and I would just be independent from other commissioners, and therefore I would hold them to a higher standard.