Public Regulation Commission stumbles into the new year

New commissioner appointed after a sudden resignation on three-member panel. A Tribal Advisory Council ‘typo’ excludes one tribal community.

By: - January 12, 2023 5:05 am

Navajo Tribal Utility Authority Journeymen Javier Jim clicks in the electrical meter for a home after they finished connected to power as part of Light Up Navajo III on May 2, 2022. (Photo by Shondiin Silversmith / Arizona Mirror)

The state is accepting applications for a newly created council designed to advise the Public Regulation Commission on issues relevant to Native American communities in New Mexico. 

Applicants have until Jan. 23 to apply, and tribal enrollment is a requirement.

The Tribal Advisory Council will consist of one representative from the eight northern Pueblos, one from the eleven southern Pueblos, one to represent the three Apache tribes and one from the Navajo Nation.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham created the council by executive order when she announced the people that will sit on the new three-member PRC. No Native American sits on commission responsible for overseeing utilities.

How to apply

The Public Regulation Commission Tribal Advisory Council is accepting applications through Monday, Jan. 23.

The council is designed to advise the PRC on issues relevant to Native American communities in New Mexico and provide recommendations on how the PRC may proceed. Tribal enrollment is required to apply. 

Apply through the state’s website:

Until this year, PRC members were elected by New Mexico voters. A constitutional amendment passed in November 2020 changed membership from being an elected position to one that’s appointed by the governor. It also shrunk the size of the board from five members to three.

Three Indigenous groups sued the state ahead of enactment of the changes, asking the New Mexico Supreme Court to intervene before the changes took effect. Late last year, the court ruled in favor of the state.

The groups said the appointed PRC board would favor the desires of energy companies over protecting sacred land and the Indigenous people who inhabit it, and that the change would silence Native people by giving energy companies unfettered influence over the PRC.

“Our people have been marginalized and silenced for generations. Our land, water and air has been sacrificed so that people in other places could switch on their lights without a second thought,” Krystal Curley (Diné), executive director of Indigenous Lifeways, said in September. “We have no faith that they will appoint people who prioritize our sacred land to the PRC.”

Commissioner Pat O’Connell on Wednesday told Source New Mexico that he feels the creation of the Tribal Advisory Council is a great idea and that it will allow for more concerns to be voiced directly to the PRC.

“I know that we’ll do a better job making decisions because we’ll have heard from more stakeholders,” he said. “The quality of the decisions will be better.”

And though the size of the board has been reduced, O’Connell said that an appointed board has an obligation to the entire state, while elected members could be tempted to focus more attention on the district that elected them.

“I think the elected commissioners also had that obligation, but the reality is that you were going to get elected from a select number of New Mexicans,” he said.

Sarah Shore, an attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Indigenous groups who sought to block the new board, said she questions if the creation of such a council is allowed by law.

“I think it’s really problematic in the sense that the PRC actually can’t give special consideration to any group,” she said. “All of the public should have equal access to input where input from the public is appropriate, and I don’t think a tribal council can have, under the law, any special role.”

Lujan Grisham’s executive order does not grant the advisory council any authority to take official complaints or act on instances where utility companies could be involved in wrongdoing.

But creation of the council obscures a bigger problem, Shore said: the issue of representation.

“The previous [elected] PRC provided representation, so I think this is a sad attempt to substitute for that,” she said. “I don’t feel particularly hopeful, given the fact that there were no [final] nominees who were women or Native Americans. So I don’t think this makes up for that, either. Honestly, it seems like window dressing.”

A rough start

The transition to a smaller, appointed board has not gone smoothly though, beginning with the executive order that created the Tribal Advisory Council. While detailing statewide representation, the document accidentally excluded one of the state’s Pueblos.

As originally written, the executive order stated the council will include a member from the eight northern Pueblos and “one from the 10 southern Pueblos” for a total of 18 Pueblos. 

There are 19 Pueblos in New Mexico.

Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for Lujan Grisham, told Source New Mexico the wording was a typo and that all 19 Pueblos will be represented by the council. The state’s website is now corrected to include all 23 tribes in the state. 

The executive order was amended Wednesday after the issue was presented to the Governor’s Office this week. “To be clear, there wasn’t a Pueblo being left out of any representation, just an unfortunate copy error,” Meyers Sackett said in a statement. 

The process of appointing PRC members began late last year when an independent nominating committee of legislators and industry experts reviewed applicants and narrowed the list to nine people. They submitted those names to Lujan Grisham. In late December, the governor named the three appointees: Gabriel Aguilera, Brian Moore and Patrick O’Connell.

All three started the new year in their roles on the PRC. On Tuesday, Moore unexpectedly stepped down from the board, stating in a resignation letter sent to the governor that he did not meet the statutory educational requirements. 

Members are required to have a bachelor’s and graduate degree “in an area regulated by the commission, including accounting, public or business administration, economics, finance, statistics, policy, engineering or law.”

Moore’s resume to the PRC shows he did not pursue a program after he graduated with his bachelor’s from the University of Denver.

The seven-member nominating committee was supposed to vet all appointment considerations before forwarding names to Lujan Grisham, according to a news release from the Governor’s Office.

While delivering the news of Moore’s resignation, the Governor’s Office announced James Ellison Jr. would replace Moore. Ellison works for Sandia National Laboratories and has nearly three decades of experience in electric utility operations and power markets, according to his biography. 

The new PRC on Wednesday held its first open meeting with only Aguilera and O’Connell officially on the board. Ellison has not yet taken the oath of office, according to the Governor’s Office. He did attend the meeting via Zoom, though he was unable to vote on any matters.

The board elected Commissioner O’Connell as chairman to preside at hearings, and it approved a nationwide advertising campaign to fill vacant leadership and advisory positions.

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Ryan Lowery
Ryan Lowery

Ryan Lowery is an award-winning independent journalist based in Albuquerque. He covers politics and criminal justice and has reported on New Mexico for the Las Vegas Optic, Santa Fe Reporter, Los Angeles Times and others. Lowery was awarded the 2020 William S. Dixon First Amendment Freedom Award from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, and the 2021 Sunshine Award from the New Mexico Press Association for his reporting that highlighted lack of transparency from multiple government agencies.