Op Ed

Evers Messes Up PSC Appointments

Three appointees in a row have had conflicts of interest, which is good news for utilities.

By - Mar 7th, 2023 01:59 pm
Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gov. Tony Evers. File photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

What is it with Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Public Service Commission?

Evers has, for the most part, made solid appointments to run state agencies, but he has messed up now in all three of his appointments to the PSC.

He started out in his first weeks in office with the worst appointment of his tenure so far. Evers appointed Rebecca Valcq, a career-long utility lawyer to chair the commission. Valcq had worked either directly or as a contract attorney for We Energies, Wisconsin’s largest utility. Moreover, in her early 40’s and with a six-year term, she will need to find another job when she’s done. Where do you think she’ll go? Right. The revolving door just keeps spinning.

Valcq wasted little time in justifying my concerns. She refused to recuse herself from a decision granting permission to ATC to build a massive power line from Iowa to Middleton. ATC’s majority owner is her former employer, We Energies. Not only did Valcq vote in favor of her old boss’ interests in the power line, but she has steadfastly refused to even consider ordering ATC to halt its work on the line after a federal judge ruled that ATC could not cross the Mississippi at its preferred spot, which runs through a federal wildlife refuge. As a result, ATC is bulldozing through with the line on either side of the river, hoping to force the courts into ultimately approving the damaging river crossing or forcing them to abandon hundreds of millions of dollars of line that is already built.

Valcq’s appointment made no sense, but Evers followed it up with one that was not much better. He appointed Tyler Huebner, the executive director of RENEW Wisconsin. Now, RENEW does the Lord’s work, advocating for alternatives to fossil fuels. The trouble is that the Lord is apparently in favor of that very same ATC power line. Huebner had lobbied for it, which meant that he had to recuse himself (as Valcq should have) from that decision, among others. Why appoint someone who you know from the get-go will have to sit out major decisions? And wind and solar are no longer scrappy, mom and pop endeavors. They’ve become major projects funded by the big public utilities.

Summer Strand. Photo from the Office of the Governor.

Summer Strand. Photo from the Office of the Governor.

Evers got one more chance when Gov. Scott Walker’s last appointee, Ellen Nowak, resigned effective March 1. But Evers struck out. He appointed Summer Strand. Strand had been Walker’s choice to run a division in the Department of Administration, so we could start out by asking if there were any Democrats who might have been qualified, but let’s let that go.

More to the point, Strand has been working for an outfit called the Walbec Group. No, I’ve never heard of them either, but it turns out that this is a big national engineering firm with several subsidiaries. A review of their website shows that they are involved in all manner of big public infrastructure projects, including specifically water and sewer infrastructure for public utilities. That’s something that the PSC regulates and, of course, since Walbec is involved in big infrastructure projects they may well end up getting a piece of power utility plants and transmission facilities as well.

So, Strand’s potential conflicts of interest, while a little murkier then the others, are also very real. And, like Valcq and Huebner, she is in the middle of her career and will need to return to the private sector at some point. That can’t be far away from her thoughts as she makes decisions as a commissioner.

As I’ve suggested many times in the past, governors should appoint retired judges to the PSC. Judges are used to hearing the evidence and measuring it against the law and, in this case, policy. The PSC is a quasi-judicial agency but now Evers is emphasizing the “quasi” while I think he should focus on the “judicial.”

Instead of this choice why not appoint someone like former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler? Or, though he’s not retired, how about Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell, who just lost in the primary for Supreme Court? Or, if you don’t want another lawyer, how about Evers’ former Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes? He’s a smart guy with no apparent ties to utilities. In fact, painstaking research turns up the fact that he was raised by a public school teacher and a third shift worker.

Evers certainly has his eye on diversity when making appointments and all three of the men I suggest here are Black. To my knowledge, there has never been a Black PSC commissioner. There’s no lack of women and people of color who could do these jobs but who don’t come with the obvious conflicts of Evers’ three appointees.

For Tony Evers it may be Summer, but it’s a cold day for Wisconsin ratepayers.

Dave Cieslewicz is a Madison and Upper Peninsula based writer. He served as mayor of Madison from 2003 to 2011. More of his writing can be found at Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos.

Categories: Environment, Op-Ed, Politics

2 thoughts on “Op Ed: Evers Messes Up PSC Appointments”

  1. Colin says:

    All I see here is hate against the ATC power line.
    That project needs to happen, our grid needs to improve. No amount of adding magical renewables and electric cars will somehow improve the grid automatically – they all actually put way more stress on it – one of the major reasons behind corridor anyway.
    Normally I don’t side with PoCos either, but our energy/grid infrastructure is in massive need of improvements.
    Simply saying “no” to these upgrades are untenable to the overall clean energy picture.

  2. joel.haubrich@gmail.com says:

    Only way to get the massive amount of wind energy from Iowa and southern MN is to build transmission.

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