Idaho utility expert, consumer advocate Conley Ward dies

In 1976, Ward helped kill a coal-burning power plant near Boise.

dpopkey@IdahoStatesman.comOctober 30, 2013 

Conley Ward, who grew up in Owyhee County, went to Columbia University and enjoyed a distinguished career as a utilities regulator and lawyer, died of complications from leukemia Monday night at his home in Kuna.

From 1977 to 1988, Ward was one of three members of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, advancing a Consumer Bill of Rights, restructuring rates to encourage efficiency and advancing renewable energy.

As chairman of the Idaho Democratic Party from 1988 to 1991, he helped lead the party to its modern peak, controlling the governorship, three of five seats on the Idaho Land Board, two of Idaho’s four congressional seats and half of the state Senate.

On election night in 1990, the lover of both country music and rock ’n’ roll quoted Randy Newman’s song, “Louisiana 1927,” about the Great Mississippi flood.

“What has happened down here is the wind have changed,” Ward said with a smile he maintained whether winning or losing.

Ward argued that the election marked a fundamental shift in Idaho politics. Instead, 1990 turned out to be high-water mark for Democrats, helped that year by the Republican Legislature’s fumbling of an unpopular abortion bill and a rightward shift. “The problem is the message,” Ward asserted.

He stepped down as chairman a few months after the triumph to focus on his family and making a living. Two years later, under new GOP Chairman Phil Batt, Republicans moved toward the middle, and by 1994 they had re-established a legislative supermajority.

But as a regulator, Ward’s imprint on Idaho and the West was lasting.

“There have been few more influential voices on Idaho and regional energy issues in the last 40 years than Conley Ward,” said former Gov. Cecil Andrus, who led the Democratic ticket in 1990. “He had a lawyer’s eye for detail as well as a deep concern for the little guy that made him a truly effective analyst, regulator and advocate.”

In 1976, Ward was a young deputy attorney general working for the PUC, helping make the case to reject Idaho Power Co.’s plan for a coal-fired power plant near Boise.

“The decision he urged the commission to make — showed them they really had to make, based on the record — saved Southern Idaho’s air quality and huge cost increases for ratepayers,” said Jeff Fereday, an energy lawyer and partner of Ward’s at Givens Pursley.

Ward joined another PUC lawyer, Daniel Poole, and Commissioner Karl Shurtliff in writing the order against the plant. “He was very bright, very able, conscientious, honest and had a lot of integrity,” Shurtliff said.

In 1977, Ward was nominated to replace Shurtliff on the PUC. It took three Senate Republicans voting with 15 Democrats to confirm him, 18-17. Six years later, he was confirmed to a second term by voice vote, having built a record of protecting Idaho hydropower and encouraging conservation.

Born in Nampa, Ward grew up on a farm, attending schools in Notus and Marsing before graduating from Vallivue High School in Caldwell in 1965. Milking cows, he listened to Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys, and later picked up the guitar himself.

He called himself an “agrarian populist.”

“Conley served people and cared for people at risk,” said Pat Ford, former executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon.

After leaving the PUC, Ward’s law practice focused on utilities. Among his first clients was the Idaho Telecom Alliance, which founded Syringa Networks, a broadband network serving rural areas.

Ward’s advice was blunt but went down easy, said Alliance President Jerry Piper, operations manager at Cambridge Telephone.

“He could step on your shoes while he straightened your tie,” Piper said.

Ken McClure, another partner of Ward’s at Givens Pursley, is the son of late Idaho Republican Sen. Jim McClure. For 15 years, the law partners were in a wine-tasting group and argued about politics.

“Conley was a partisan, but he was a man of extraordinary principle,” McClure said. “His beliefs were deeply and honestly held. He was a dear friend.”

Ward’s end came quickly. Doctors diagnosed acute myeloid leukemia in April, and he underwent his last chemotherapy session at Mountain States Tumor Institute several weeks ago.

Ward is survived by his wife of 42 years, Gail; sons Ian and Tyler; three grandchildren; brothers Cotton, Clay and Dudley; sister Janie Ward-Engelking; and his mother, Eloise, 89, who lives on the Kuna ranch where the family spent decades raising racehorses.

A wake will be held at the Barber Park Event Center at a date to be determined.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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