Gov. Terry Branstad’s decision earlier this month to effectively fire Iowa Utilities Board member Sheila Tipton and demote Board Chair Libby Jacobs is one of the more bizarre actions he’s taken since returning to office in 2011.

Both women are well-regarded Branstad appointees. Neither has done anything to warrant the shabby treatment they’ve received.

Tipton, a Democrat, was named to the board two years ago to serve out the term of Democrat Swati Dandekar, who resigned to run for Congress.

To take the job, Tipton, 63, had to give up a lucrative law practice at the Belin McCormick firm, which involved representing utility companies, including MidAmerican Energy Co., in regulatory matters.

Before Tipton accepted the two-year appointment, she was assured of a full six-year term when the interim period expired. Anything less would not have made sense for someone of her stature and qualifications.

Branstad appointed Jacobs to a six-year term and named her chairwoman in 2011. Jacobs had no background in utilities, but she does have a wide and varied history of public service, including 14 years in the Iowa Legislature.

At this point, it’s worth noting that Iowa’s three Utilities Board members serve staggered six-year terms that are designed to insulate them from pressure that might be applied by state elected officials who serve two- and four-year terms. Iowa law also requires that the board include at least one Republican and one Democrat. 

Tipton, by virtue of her career, is clearly the board member with the most knowledge about utility regulation. 

So why did Branstad unappoint her and demote Jacobs, his handpicked leader of the Utilities Board? And why was such a significant change buried in a list of more than 200 appointments released by the governor on March 2?

At the time, the only news generated by that lengthy list involved Branstad’s nominees for the Iowa Board of Regents. 

But 10 days later, Associated Press reporter Ryan Foley realized there was bigger news two lines down from the Regents appointments where it said: “Utility Board, Ms. Geri Huser, Chairperson, Altoona.” 

There was no mention of Tipton, whose seat Huser would take, nor of Jacobs, who was being demoted. 

No official bothered to alert the media to the significance of the change. But political types quickly recognized Huser as a former lawmaker and daughter of the late Ed Skinner, a longtime Democratic power broker. Foley described her as a “business-friendly” Democrat and said her nomination was likely to win quick approval from the Democrat-controlled Iowa Senate.  

When Foley asked about Tipton, he was told that top officials from MidAmerican Energy had met with Branstad on Feb. 9 to criticize a Feb. 6 Utilities Board ruling in a rate case. The amount of money involved was not large by utility standards, and both the governor’s office and MidAmerican officials denied any connection between the ruling and the change in Utilities Board membership. 

Some people believe that; some don’t.

Foley’s story mentioned one other possibility: A pending proposal to build a 500-mile transmission line to carry wind energy from northwest Iowa to customers in Illinois.

Tipton had recused herself from that case because of her previous legal work for the owner of the owner of that transmission line. Branstad’s spokesman told Foley the governor wanted three voting members on the board when it considers the transmission line case and whether eminent domain should be used. The reason was that a single “no” vote could stall the project if the board had only two voting members. 

Whatever the reason, Branstad made a big mistake by allowing MidAmerican to end-run the Utilities Board and complain to him about the rate case. Even worse, he decided to trade a quality regulator for no meaningful gain.