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The New Mexico Business Coalition says the Public Regulation Commission has violated the state Open Meetings Act twice since December by holding secret deliberations on issues that should be aired in public.
The PRC went into “closed session” in December to discuss a Public Service Company of New Mexico request to sell its stake in the coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant to the Navajo Nation, and then again in February to discuss a rate case filed by Southwestern Public Service Co.
The coalition filed two complaints Tuesday with the Attorney General’s Office requesting investigations into both incidents. New Mexico’s Open Meetings Act has limited exceptions for when public meetings may be closed and requires a reason be provided for going into closed sessions.
“Generally, closed sessions are only for personnel matters and lawsuits,” Business Coalition President Carla Sonntag told the Journal. “These closed-door deliberations were very much out of the norm and they violated the Open Meetings Act.”
By discussing the issues in private, the five PRC commissioners deprived the public of its legitimate right to observe the regulatory process, hear the opinions of commissioners, and understand the basis for final decisions, Sonntag added.
“We want all decision-making held in public to listen to the arguments made and to learn about why commissioners come to the conclusions they do,” Sonntag said. “In these two cases, they didn’t do that, and we want the attorney general to look into it because we don’t want this to become a pattern. These are critical issues and decisions that impact the state and all ratepayers.”
The closed session about the Four Corners plant was particularly “egregious,” because the commission spent nearly four hours behind closed doors, said coalition board member Wayne Berry. Commissioners then emerged with a decision to reject PNM’s proposed sale – despite a PRC hearing examiner’s recommendation to approve it – with no explanation of what transpired out of public view.
PNM has since appealed to the state Supreme Court to overturn the PRC decision on the Four Corners sale.
“This is not how public bodies should conduct themselves,” Berry said in a statement. “Public officials who are being paid by the taxpayers owe New Mexicans the transparency that a public process requires.”
The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (NMFOG) said such state agency deliberations should be done in open public meetings.
“The Open Meetings Act declares that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible access to the affairs of government,” NMFOG Executive Director Shannon Kunkel said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s critical that discussions on matters that so greatly impact the lives of New Mexicans be conducted in public view. To improperly close a meeting is a violation of both the letter and (the) spirit of the law, and breeds public mistrust in our public institutions.”
Two commissioners, Cynthia Hall and Stephen Fischmann, told the Journal they could not comment on the complaints.
“I haven’t seen them, so I don’t know anything about them yet,” Hall said.
Fischmann, however, said the closed sessions were conducted under advice from the commission’s general counsel.
“We were advised that not only were the closed sessions legal, but (also) that it was advisable in these particular cases,” Fischmann said. “That’s really all I can say about it.”