Highwood blindsides council 

No, Mayor John Engen confirms, he didn’t see it coming. No, Administration and Finance Committee Chair Stacy Rye admits, council had no idea.

But when council signed off on a letter of intent from the mayor to enter an agreement with Great Falls-based Electric City Power Aug. 13, it may have waded into more pre-election controversy than urban fowl and mandatory-pledge debates combined could generate.

The beef is this: Electric City’s juice might eventually come from the hotly contested and as yet unbuilt Highwood coal power plant. Critics say Highwood will produce dirty energy that doesn’t jibe with Missoula’s stated intent to reduce greenhouse gases, the supplier is dangerously under-regulated, and the plant may never be built anyway.

Supporters say that’s cheaper and no worse than what the city’s presently buying from the NorthWestern monopoly, and point to a legislatively imposed Oct. 1 deadline to make a decision.

The debate will play itself out, with lots of opportunities for public comment, over the next month as an actual contract is considered.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of what promises to be an extraordinarily complex consideration, what’s currently curious is that no one on a city council pledged to support greenhouse gas reductions seemed to recognize there was even a debate to be had about a contract to buy dirty coal power from a hypothetical generator—at least not until the bloggers and the non-profits got wind of it. Suddenly Missoula was buzzing with legislators and PSC candidates and consumer advocacy groups with a problem with the proposal.

“I don’t spend a lot of time pondering those issues,” Mayor Engen told the Independent Tuesday. “I take responsibility for not knowing enough.”

Rye, who heads the committee that unanimously agreed to put the letter on council’s undiscussed all-or-nothing consent agenda, said that in the rush to cut the cord with NorthWestern before the Oct. 1 deadline, Highwood never really registered on council’s radar. “We didn’t know there was controversy surrounding this plant.”

Neither, to be fair, did the rest of Missoula. Rye’s committee was open to public input; nobody but Electric City spoke up.

Perhaps we were all too busy trying to figure out where we stand on city chickens and loyalty oaths.
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