Montana Public Radio

'Zoombombing' Shuts Down Montana Public Service Commission Meeting

Apr 14, 2020
Originally published on April 21, 2020 10:02 am

Editor's Note April 21, 2020: PSC counsel Zack Rogala's name was mispelled in a previous version of this article and has since been corrected.

A Montana regulatory body on Apr. 14 fell victim to an instance of teleconference hijacking, also called “zoombombing,” which interrupted public comment and delayed commissioners’ decision making.

The Montana Public Service Commission turned to remote teleconferencing in late March to maintain social distancing during the coronavirus. The commission has been using the popular Zoom platform to hold public meetings.

At a Tuesday regular meeting Representative Mary Ann Dunwell was giving public comment on NorthWestern Energy’s application to buy an added share in the Colstrip coal fired power plant unit 4 when someone interrupted her.

She’d been saying how vital it was to be transparent with ratepayers.

“Because they were shoulder the cost especially if you grant the preapproval, it’ll be all passed on, all the costs. It’ll shoulder your mom, foreseen and unforeseen,” they said. 

The unidentified interruptor continued:

“No one wants to hear your BEEP BEEP,” they said. 

The FBI released a warning about the rising trend of zoombombing, when someone interrupts a teleconference. It’s become a problem across the country as more and more people, school districts and government groups turn to remote meetings.

When it came time for the commission to consider NorthWestern’s purchase proposal, PSC attorney Zack Rogala suggested commissioners postpone.

“Unfortunately we think it’s better to delay this work session given the issues with public comment and participation,” Rogala said. 

Rogala said PSC members had to reconnect using a separate number that had not been publicly advertised, which prevented further public comment unless people with comments reached out directly.

PSC has experienced a number of issues with public comment, including connectivity issues, members failing to put phones on mute, and general miscommunication. Rogala says he’s gotten complaints from members of the media and legislators.

The PSC delayed a number of items for unrelated reasons and set terms and costs for developer CED Wheatland Wind’s 75 megawatt wind farm.

NorthWestern is required by law to buy the energy, but turned to the PSC to help it set terms and conditions. PSC favored NorthWestern on most points, including shooting down CED’s requested carbon cost on the projects.

NorthWestern argued that it would have to build a new transmission line for the project, which Con Edison argued NorthWestern and its ratepayers should pay for. The PSC said the developer would have to pay the cost in that case. This project is one of a handful also in the queue to use an existing transmission line, which is what would necessitate a new one.

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