San Juan Generating Station to be discussed at PRC’s first closed-door meeting under new policy

A few weeks after commission’s transparency is questioned, officials revise Open Meetings Act policy

By: - July 19, 2023 4:30 am
Electrical transmission power line, beautiful sunset sky on background

On Thursday, the Public Regulation Commission will be privately discussing PNM's abandonment of San Juan Generating Station units. The state's Supreme Court is looking into an appeal the utility filed in 2022 in an attempt not to give rate credits to its customers, as the PRC ordered PNM to do. (Getty Images)

Despite transparency concerns from government watchdogs, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission is holding a private meeting this week in place of the weekly public meetings it used to have.

Commissioners are supposed to discuss the Public Service Company of New Mexico’s abandonment of San Juan Generating Station units, but members of the public won’t be able to listen in. The PRC argues there are litigation privacy concerns.

How does the PRC affect me?

The state’s Public Regulation Commission regulates utilities, telecommunications and motor carriers. It ensures that these industries are following operation standards and charging New Mexicans fair rates on things like electricity bills.

On June 21, commissioners decided to transition from one public meeting per week to one public meeting every two weeks. On the weeks meetings aren’t held, the officials can decide to hold meetings closed to the public instead.

Commissioners have said that biweekly meetings would give them and their advisory staff more time to consider and make changes to complex issues that come to the PRC.

The day after the commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with this new schedule, the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government released a statement saying transparency issues could arise from this.

“To simply announce that every other meeting will be closed seems not to take into consideration whether all items discussed will fall under the Open Meetings Act (OMA) exceptions,” the Foundation said.

The Foundation urged the commission to reconsider and open all the meetings. When commissioners changed the schedule, Commissioner James Ellison said this isn’t an irreversible decision.

The schedule remains biweekly. The first Thursday meeting was July 13.

This week, there’s a closed meeting planned for Thursday, July 20.

There are a few different reasons public bodies can hold closed meetings, including discussions on litigation, limited personnel, licensing or adjudicatory proceedings. The reason for an executive meeting must be publicly disclosed.

The PRC listed litigation as the reason for Thursday’s closed meaning where commissioners are supposed to talk about unit shutdowns at PNM’s San Juan Generating Station.

It’s a legal matter dating back to 2022 when PNM shut down coal plant generators but kept charging customers the same rates for the stations, despite originally saying people’s bills would decrease. The PRC ordered the utility to give its customers refunds through credits on bills.

PNM fought the order by appealing it with the state Supreme Court in June 2022. The court is still looking into it.

Other environmental advocacy organizations as well as the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General have gotten involved in the legal fight, too.

No details besides the general case topic are listed on Thursday’s agenda.

The Foundation for Open Government reminded the PRC that commissioners can’t take any action in a closed meeting.

Updating the Open Meetings Act policy

More transparency matters came up last week when the Public Regulation Commission approved revisions to its Open Meetings Act policy, mainly shortening the policy’s length.

Transparency by law

The Open Meetings Act is a New Mexico law that requires public bodies to conduct business in a clear manner that’s accessible to the public.

The previous policy was originally adopted in 2013, PRC spokesperson Patrick Rodriguez said.

He didn’t respond to an inquiry on if the transparency concerns spurred last week’s policy change, though he sent a news release that the commission changed the open meetings policy “to boost transparency, efficiency and productivity.”

Scott Cameron, PRC attorney, said on July 13 that the commission, the same as any other entities that follow the Open Meetings Act, has to annually adopt “a statement of what notice is reasonable.”

He said he used the state attorney general’s template to update the PRC’s policy, which now outlines the updated biweekly meeting schedule.

It went from the 13 pages in the decade-old policy to three pages

Cameron said the policy was shortened because commissioners requested it be streamlined in accordance with what the Open Meetings Act requires.

Commissioner Pat O’Connell said the former policy had a lot of repetition. He and Commissioner Gabriel Aguilera said they appreciate the brevity of this version.

Aguilera still had a few concerns with some of the content in the updated policy.

Cameron’s proposed policy would allow either the chairperson or a majority of the commissioners to call a meeting outside of the regular biweekly schedule. Aguilera said any of the officials should be able to call a meeting outside of the regular schedule, if needed.

“In an emergency situation where health, safety or property of the citizens is threatened, I think it would be better for any commissioner to be able to suggest an emergency meeting,” he said.

O’Connell said he’s fine removing the chairperson’s authority to call a meeting outside of the biweekly schedule but wants to maintain the majority approval required so there’s a consensus that the meetings are a valuable use of everyone’s time.

So the commissioners approved the removal of the chairperson’s sole authority to call a special meeting, leaving the stipulation that at least two of three members have to agree to call a non-regular meeting.

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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.