Large numbers of Richland County people have given public comment about closure of MDU’s Lewis and Clark Station at Sidney. We did this four times to MDU and three times to the Public Service Commission. Richland County Commissioners have filed written public comment. With a few precious exceptions such as PSC Commissioner Randy Pinocci, we have been speaking to people who have plugged their ears. One PSC commissioner has even complained about us being allowed to appear before them.
Public comment is good, but we need to take further steps. With public comment alone, all they do is go through the motions of listening, wait us out at meetings, and go back to Bismarck and Helena as if they never heard a word.
We packed the council chambers at Sidney City Hall on April 25, 2019 when the PSC Commissioner for our district, Randy Pinocci, held a public comment hearing.
We packed the meeting hall of the ag experiment station on July 15, 2019 when MDU hosted a meeting.
County Commissioner Duane Mitchell developed several questions to be addressed by the PSC. Commissioners Loren H. Young and Shane Gorder worked with Mitchell on a unanimous set of questions. As a united Commission, they sent the questions in a letter to the PSC. Their letter resulted in a public comment hearing in Helena on October 29, 2019. We packed the room. It was literally standing room only with more of the crowd spilling through the doorway and into the hall.
Commissioner Pinnocci held another public comment hearing at the Richland County Event Center on February 25, 2020. We provided comment for about three hours. This meeting even drew a candidate for the PSC from a different district, Representative Daniel Zolnikov, House District 47, representing Billing, who commented supporting Richland County.
What has all this voluminous public comment changed? Nothing. Why not? Because they have plugged their ears.
In emails on September 12 and 13, 2019, Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman complained about us being allowed to appear and give public comment on the letter from our County Commissioners. He zeroed in on the fact that others, like MDU, are parties to their case before the PSC, but none of us in Richland County were parties. As Americans and Montanans, we have the right to citizen participation in the operation of governmental agencies. We have the right to open government, not a closed government denying public comment, not a government complaining about public comment, and not a government of plugged ears.
The complaint by Commissioner Koopman exhibits a profound lack of understanding of basic American civics that every 4-H kid, every Girl Scout, and every graduate of 8th grade knows. He should withdraw from participating in any further proceedings involving Richland County.
We can thank Commissioner Koopman for one thing. He showed us that we need to do something more than give public comment. He made a sharp distinction between public comment by non-parties on the one hand and participation by intervening parties on the other. That is what we need to do. Various parties in Richland County need to intervene as parties in MDU cases to use the rights of parties to obtain real and complete information, to make our case, and clean the wax out of the ears.
The hearing on February 25, 2020 ended on an excellent note when James Brower was on a roll laying out what we need to do and likening this struggle with the struggle of Richland County during the irrigation case in federal court. On all counts, James is correct.