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PRC commissioner removed as chair

Public Regulation Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission voted 3-2 to remove outspoken Commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar from her position as chairwoman and appointed Commissioner Stephen Fischmann to the leadership role.

The PRC met on the morning of Sept. 16 via Zoom. Becenti-Aguilar led the meeting at the beginning, but Fischmann took over after he was appointed on a 3-2 vote to the position of chairman.

At the end of the meeting, Fischmann said all five commissioners should be equals in terms of authority and the role of chairperson is simply to conduct the meetings. He said he will strive to ensure that every commissioner has a voice.

When reached by phone, Becenti-Aguilar said she believes her vocal position on broadband was what led to the vote to remove her from the position. The PRC is set to finalize funding for broadband initiatives during its next meeting on Oct. 7.

Becenti-Aguilar has served as the chairperson since her election in 2018. She represents the northwest portion of the state.

‘I will continue to fight for my people’

“I’m a business-minded leader with the citizens initiatives, so the way that I would like to approach it is that I’m not going to battle for one particular company to receive the funding,” she said. “Where I come from is let’s look at the county, let’s look at the poverty level, let’s see if these residential customers or potential residential customers have never had any type of telephone service or broadband service during their entire lives. Let’s spread the broadband funding according to where it is needed the most. And I became very vocal about that within the last few months.”

Companies have sent in applications for broadband funding and she said some of the companies have already received millions of dollars of federal assistance and are requesting additional funding. Other companies are now coming to the commission during the pandemic to ask for broadband funding to support a community school.

“So I became very vocal and I questioned the commissioners, I questioned it during our open meetings. So I think that is the reason why I was voted out today,” she said.

However, Becenti-Aguilar said she will continue to voice her opinion on the behalf of her constituents.

“It’s OK if they vote me out,” she said. “But I will continue to fight for my people.”

In addition, Becenti-Aguilar said she will fight for the PRC, which is in the process of packing up its offices and moving the equipment to storage. The PRC has until Sept. 30 to vacate the state-owned building in Santa Fe.

It has found a smaller location that it hopes to move into on Jan. 1, but until then all the equipment will be in storage. Becenti-Aguilar said the smaller location can house 40 employees and the PRC has 126 employees who are currently working from home.

New chair talks of refocusing panel

“The main issue here is, I think, we want to be sure we’re getting refocused on kind of the core issues of the commission,” Fischmann said during the meeting.

The PRC is tasked with protecting consumer interests, including regulating investor-owned utilities and rural electric cooperatives. He said “it’s been real easy to get distracted” as the commission faces a variety of uncertainties.

The PRC was evicted from its building this year and is facing potential restructuring as the Legislature and governor seek to reform the panel.

Fischmann never mentioned Becenti-Aguilar by name or expressly pointed his finger at any issues he has had with her leadership.

“I think the entire commission has been pretty darn good at trying to stay focused on consumer issues and being fair to everybody and following process and it hasn’t always been easy given all the things going on,” he said.

Fischmann said he hopes that the change in leadership can help the commission perform its duties better.

Fischmann and Commissioner Valerie Espinoza had requested the commission vote on removing Becenti-Aguilar as the chairperson. Fischmann made the motion, which Espinoza seconded.

Commissioner Jefferson Byrd and Becenti-Aguilar cast the dissenting votes in both removing Becenti-Aguilar as the chairperson and appointing Fischmann to that position.

Byrd will remain in his position as the vice-chairman of the commission.

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