By Margaret Wright
— As the Public Regulation Commission opened its first meeting of the year with two new members, questions were raised about whether some conversations between officials will take place behind closed doors.
There was also wrangling about who would lead the PRC in 2013. Brand-new Commissioner Karen Montoya moved to put fellow Democrats into the chair and vice-chair positions: Theresa Becenti-Aguilar would replace Republican Pat Lyons and fellow newcomer Valerie Espinoza would become vice-chair.
But Republican Commissioner Ben Hall objected and suggested the election be postponed until next week. Becenti-Aguilar appeared riled that the original motion was overridden by Hall’s. She asked a staff attorney to clarify the meeting rules of order.
Bob Parker, PRC staff attorney, confirmed that Hall’s move trumped Montoya’s “That’s just reading it for the first time,” Parker said. “I guess that’s the best we can do right at this minute.” Becenti-Aguilar asked that legal counsel to be more prepared when the chair and vice-chair election are back on the agenda next week.
Topic: Open Meetings Policy
After a unanimous vote to approve a new code of conduct that staff attorney Parker called “simplified and more clear,” he told commissioners to consider changes to the way meetings are conducted.
He said the law permits commissioners to meet in private to discuss cases. “I think it can be helpful because everybody can say what they want and not worry about how the public perceives it,” Parker said.
Espinoza, Montoya and Hall each said they were in favor of separate meetings to discuss issues before they were brought to a vote. The PRC voted unanimously to hold off on adopting an open meetings policy, agreeing to discuss modifications at a public working session following the regular commission meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 22.
A member of the League of Women Voters criticized the commission during public comment. “We’re very concerned about all the discussion about types of meetings,” said Karen Heldmeyer. There are very specific rules about how to hold a closed executive session, she added, and the commission’s apparent confusion raises uncertainty among members of the public. Heldmeyer urged commissioners to go beyond requirements of the Public Meetings Act, “to make sure that the public knows what’s going on in government and can be involved.”
Then commissioners backpedaled, recalling their vote to postpone decision-making on the open meetings policy. The new vote to approve their standard policy—without closed meetings—was unanimous.
Given the PRC’s scandal-riddled past, it’s shocking that commissioners aren’t eager to go above and beyond the letter of law when it comes to transparent decision-making and open meetings.
Parker also suggested commissioners consider decreasing the public comment period, which is capped at 15 minutes. It’s surprising that PRC staff would take steps to limit public comments. Utility companies often submit reams of testimony pages for the PRC to consider. Other stakeholders should also be allowed to present their side in detail.
Topic: Rate Increase
About 100,000 customers in eastern and southeast New Mexico—including in Hobbs, Roswell and Clovis—would see their rates increase by an average more than $20 per month if a proposal submitted by a utility based in Amarillo, Texas, is approved.
Commissioners voted 5 to 0 to suspend the rate increase until a public hearing examiner is appointed to oversee formal public testimony. “We need to thoroughly look at this and make sure we don’t hurt the ratepayers,” said Hall, who represents parts of the state affected by the rate hike.
According to Xcel Energy corporation, which owns Southwestern Public Service Company, nearly half of the rate increase will go toward the cost of renewable energy purchases. The other half is to cover upgrades to transmission lines and power plants.
When it comes to weighing the benefits of clean, renewable energy against higher costs to ratepayers, the more public input, the better.