Few things get as superheated in Pueblo these days as the city’s ongoing grudge match with its principal power supplier, Black Hills Energy. For years, local government and other critics have railed against the Rapid City, S.D.-based utility over a succession of electricity rate hikes, and they have chided the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC), as well, for approving the increases. Pressure has been mounting to rein in Puebloans’ power bills, which, by many accounts, are among the highest in the state.
So the city cheered last year when Gov. John Hickenlooper named Pueblo native Frances Koncilja to the quasi-judicial PUC as one of its three commissioners. The blunt-spoken attorney didn’t waste a minute before going after Black Hills and calling it on the carpet.
Her approach struck the company as so aggressive, it claimed bias and filed a request with the PUC earlier this month asking her to recuse herself from deliberating on its latest request for a rate hike (to be exact, it’s a request for reconsideration of the PUC’s decision to scale back Black Hills’ previous request for a rate hike). She refused to step aside, and the company asked the full board to vote her out of the deliberations. It voted 2-1, including Koncilja’s own vote, against the unusual Black Hills request.
Now, Pueblo County is pushing back even further. Reports the Pueblo Chieftain, the county government has filed a request to the PUC to remove recently appointed Wendy Moser — the one commissioner who had voted with Black Hills against Koncilja — from deliberations on the same pending rate case from which Black Hills had sought to remove Koncilja. Moser, an attorney named to the commission in January, is a former staff counsel to Black Hills.
Writes the Chieftain’s Peter Roper:
Pueblo County…argues that Moser has a conflict of interest because she has extensive knowledge of the many components in the Black Hills rate request from when she was a lawyer in its regulatory office from 2011-2014.
In its motion, the county quotes state law that says a commissioner can be disqualified if they have served as a lawyer on a matter before the commission.
Moser, who at her Senate confirmation hearing in January had faced some of the same questions about her history with Black Hills, contended then she has no conflicts of interest on any matters pending before the PUC.
As ColoradoPolitics.com’s Peter Marcus reported previously, the bias accusations against Koncilija were a lot more colorful than those against Moser:
Black Hills’ motion to disqualify Koncilja was based on alleged bad behavior, using terms like “despised company” “drunken sailor” and “colonial power” to describe the utility.
And Moser’s decision to openly champion Black Hills’ motion against Koncilja led to a wince-worthy exchange not often associated with a staid and deliberative governing body heavy on regulatory procedure and light on drama:
“Commissioner Koncilja … is the one who raised the idea of, it’s Commissioner Moser that you need to be concerned about, not her. This is not about me or my relationship with Black Hills,” Moser said. “One must ask why Commissioner Koncilja would shift the discussion away from the pending motion and make it about me.”
…with Koncilja countering:
…“The decisions we make here affect real people, and regardless of what Black Hills thinks about me or this commission, the rates down there continue to cause real heartburn, and I think the problem we’re going to have going forward is that there is a perception in that community that you have your fingerprints on a lot of the decisions that have created the pain,” Koncilja addressed Moser.
We’ll stay tuned for the next salvo — and be ready to duck.