The state Public Service Commission Tuesday backed away from repealing a 2010 rule that says top executive salaries at regulated gas, electric, telephone and water utilities in Montana are public information.
But the PSC, which regulates these utilities, indicated it may revise the rule, to clarify how some companies can ask to keep that information secret from the public.
“It’s a bad rule that just got everybody confused,” said Commissioner Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman. “It was basically a publicity stunt, to make it appear the commission at that time was creating more transparency.”
Commissioner Bob Lake, R-Hamilton, who this year initiated the move to repeal the rule, said Tuesday he plans to propose a new rule to clarify how a company can seek and obtain a “protective order” to keep the salary information from the public.
But on Tuesday, Lake said the PSC had received “an awful lot of responses” from the public against repealing the rule, and asked to shelve the repeal.
About 200 people submitted written comments on the issue, with nearly all of them opposing the repeal.
The all-Republican panel voted 5-0 on Tuesday to let the rule stand for now.
A Democrat-controlled PSC enacted the rule in September 2010, although the rule has never been enforced, blocked by a lawsuit filed by companies that oppose it.
Lake said Tuesday he hopes a revised rule will convince the Mountain Water Co. of Missoula, the Montana Telephone Association and Montana-Dakota Utilities to withdraw their pending lawsuit challenging the current rule.
Mountain Water, a privately owned company that provides Missoula’s municipal water, has consistently asked the PSC to keep the company’s executive compensation secret and opposed attempts to publicly reveal that compensation.
Commissioner Travis Kavulla, R-Great Falls, who supports the current rule, said he hopes the PSC eventually will vote to release the Mountain Water executive compensation.
He noted that California’s utility commission requires Mountain Water’s parent company to reveal its top executives’ salaries in that state.
“We know what the big bosses of Mountain Water are paid in California, but we don’t know what the Montana executives are paid,” Kavulla said.
“I think it would be helpful for the citizens of Missoula to compare Mountain Water’s executive salaries to those of executives at publicly owned water utilities,” he continued. “I can’t tell you what they are, because it’s still a secret, but I think people would be surprised to make that comparison.”
The lawsuit says the PSC has made no compelling argument for violating utility executives’ privacy rights.
The rule says when regulated utilities submit executive salary information to the commission, it is public information.
However, it also says utilities can ask for a “protective order” to keep that information from the public and “set forth the circumstances that may justify issuance of such an order.”
Publicly traded utilities like NorthWestern Energy – the largest electric and gas utility in Montana – aren’t affected by the rule, because they already release executive compensation in filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Ken Toole, the former PSC member who proposed the disclosure rule, said Tuesday he did so because he got tired of the PSC routinely allowing utilities to keep salary information secret, without any real justification.
The rule makes it clear up-front that the information is public – unless the company provides a good reason why it shouldn’t be, he said.
“It’s not confusing,” he said of the rule. “We wanted to leave (companies) the option of coming up with a bona fide business reason for the secrecy.”