Efficiency and open government at the PUC

The Public Utilities Commission is asking the Legislature to define what activities they do are subject to open meetings laws — and what is not.

Current law with regards to the PUC and open meetings is short and direct:

Every vote and official action of the Public Utilities Commission shall be entered of record and its proceedings shall be open to the public as prescribed in chapter 1-25.

Senate Bill 223 would change that to read:

Every vote and official action of the Public Utilities Commission shall be entered of record. The proceedings of the Public Utilities Commission are open to the public as prescribed in chapter 1-25 when the Public Utilities Commission is exercising its regulatory or adjudicatory authority pursuant to Title 49

It also adds a new section to follow:

However, the Public Utilities Commission is not subject to the requirements of chapter 1-25 when one or more commissioners are meeting among themselves or staff to discuss the internal management of the Public Utilities Commission regarding such things as:

  1. Planning or developing activities or proposed legislation;
  2. Organizing the internal structure of the Public Utilities Commission;
  3. Selecting, appointing, promoting, removing or managing personnel;
  4. Developing reports; or
  5. Developing budgets and expending funds.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. David Lust and Sen. Corey Brown at the request of the PUC. Is the PUC trying to more some of its activities out of public view?

"Absolutely not," said Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson.

Everything the PUC currently does in public will remain in public, Nelson said. This bill will allow discussions that, he said, currently aren’t taking place.

"I’m thinking, well, I should go to Commissioner Hanson… and ask him about (a recent issue)," Nelson said. "He’s sitting in the room right next to me, the office right next to me. And yet, under today’s rule, I can’t do that. I can’t ask him a simple question."

These conversations have “nothing to do with the official dockets that come before the agency,” he said.

"What this bill does is say that those kind of conversations that aren’t happening today, in order to make us better servants of the people, help to make sure we’re doing the best job we can for the people, that we can in fact have those kind of conversations," he said.

Do you agree this bill would make the PUC more efficient without hurting open government?

Mercer: Chris Daugaard leaving PUC

Reporter Bob Mercer writes that Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s son Chris is leaving his job as an analyst at the Public Utilities Commission for a job as a business analyst at Raven Industries in Sioux Falls.

Chris Nelson declares victory

He hasn’t received a concession call from Nick Nemec, but Public Utilities Commissioner Chris Nelson just declared victory in a speech at the Republican Party headquarters.

"This morning, I read a quote from a politician in another state. This person said, quote, there is no humble in politics," Nelson said. "Tonight, I’m here to tell you that’s not true. I am incredibly humbled tonight by the confidence the people of South Dakota have placed in me to be their Public Utilities Commissioner for the next four years."

Nelson promised to fight to keep utilities reliable and rates low, but, his voice rising in intensity, promised to do that “without demonizing our utility companies or micromanaging them.”

The Democratic PUC candidates, most prominently Matt McGovern, have harshly criticized Xcel Energy this campaign.

Nelson did have a kind word for Nemec, a farmer.

"My opponent, and tonight I can say his name, Nick Nemec, is passionate about protecting farmers," Nelson said. "I appreciate that about Nick, and I share that."

Right now, with 42 percent of precincts reporting, Nelson leads Nemec 68-32.

One way to handle losing

There’s a good chance some incumbent South Dakota elected officials will lose tonight.

It’s also a good bet that they’ll handle it better than one public servant did 40 years ago.

(This story isn’t really relevant in any way — but when it was mentioned in passing to me today it was too good not to blog about.)

The year is 1972. George McGovern was busy losing the presidency in a landslide, including his home state of South Dakota. But Democrat P.K. Ecker outperforms McGovern and wins a seat on the Public Utilities Commission, beating Republican incumbent Harvey Scharn 51-49.

Scharn isn’t happy about this. He’s especially not happy because he argues Ecker isn’t eligible to serve at all — because Ecker, a retired lifelong employee of Western Union, has a Western Union pension, and would be asked to regulate Western Union.

South Dakota law forbids Public Utilities Commissioners from being “pecuniarily interested in any company, of which the public utilities commission has supervision.”

The PUC’s own history (page 97) describes what happens next:

Scharn refused to vacate his seat because Ecker had stock in Western Union, a regulated utility. Ecker came to the office to find his desk relocated in a hall outside of the Commission’s suite of offices.

Apparently — though I can’t find any documentation online about this turn of events — this standoff continued for some time. It wasn’t until May 1974 when the South Dakota Supreme Court finally weighed in, ruling Scharn had not met the burden of proof that Ecker had violated the law, and letting Ecker take office.

Tags: PUC

Kristie Fiegen is going on the air

I just got back from some of Sioux Falls’ TV stations, collecting ad buy information. I’ll have more on some unusual circumstances surrounding how Matt Varilek is paying for his commercial later today (after “100 Eyes” at 3 p.m. today).

In the meantime, I’ll share a tidbit I pulled out of those files: Public Utilities Commissioner Kristie Fiegen is launching a moderate television campaign.

KELO was still getting paperwork together for Fiegen’s buy, but I have her KSFY purchase. She’s starting tonight with one ad each during Wheel of Fortune and the KSFY 10 p.m. News, running a few ads per day through Oct. 14, then going off the air until Oct. 23. Starting then, she’ll run between three and six ads per day until the election.

All told Fiegen’s purchased 80 KSFY spots for a total net cost of around $10,000.

Fiegen’s fellow PUC commissioner Chris Nelson is also exploring an ad buy. I haven’t heard anything from Democrats Matt McGovern and Nick Nemec, or Libertarian Russell Clarke.

Chris Nelson and Nick Nemec, who are running against each other for a seat on the Public Utilities Commission, share a laugh prior to a legislative hearing Thursday in Pierre.

Chris Nelson and Nick Nemec, who are running against each other for a seat on the Public Utilities Commission, share a laugh prior to a legislative hearing Thursday in Pierre.

The PUC responds on Anderson Seed

Democratic PUC candidates Matt McGovern and Nick Nemec have been hammering incumbent PUC commissioners Chris Nelson and Kristie Fiegen mercilessly over the bankruptcy of Anderson Seed Company, owes millions to Redfield-area farmers.

Now Nelson and Fiegen are holding a press conference Wednesday to announce “recommendations for legislative changes to grain buyer statutes.”

Clearly the Democrats have been scoring some points here by arguing the PUC should have done more to protect farmers, though the issue probably wouldn’t have been enough alone to secure a victory. Will whatever Nelson and Fiegen announce on Wednesday help blunt these attacks?

Smooth sailing for Nelson, Fiegen?

In case you missed it, my story in this morning’s paper looked at the race for Public Utilities Commission. On neither side does there seem to be a fight brewing for the party nomination, which will be bestowed at the upcoming party conventions:

  • Incumbent Republicans Chris Nelson and Kristie Fiegen say they’ve talked to hundreds of delegates and haven’t heard about anyone challenging them
  • Gordon Howie, who supported a lot of legislative challengers in the June 5 primary, said the PUC races aren’t on his radar
  • Democrats so far only have one declared candidate, Matt McGovern, who’s looking to challenge Fiegen
  • Democratic Party chairman Ben Nesselhuf said the party will probably have a second nominee, but who it is remains to be seen
  • One possibility, former House candidate Jeff Barth, said he’s open to the prospect but not terribly interested in it after his long and (at the end) intense and draining campaign ended up in a landslide defeat
  • Some maneuvering by the Dems, who are having their actual convention close to a month before their official convention date, thus giving them time to make convention decisions even after the party gathering in Aberdeen is over

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