Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Fifteen candidates are currently in the running as potential nominees to a new, three-member Public Regulation Commission that the governor will appoint to replace today’s five elected PRC commissioners in January.
A bipartisan, seven-member nominating committee began interviewing the candidates last week. It will select at least five by Nov. 14 for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to choose from.
Assuming they all receive Senate approval, the three new appointees will take office on Jan. 1, completing a four-year process that began in 2019 to convert the PRC from an elected body to a publicly-appointed one.
The conversion is mandated under a constitutional amendment that received broad bipartisan support in the state Legislature and that voters approved in the November 2020 elections with 56% backing. The reform aims to “professionalize” and “depoliticize” the PRC, which has been wracked by controversy through highly contentious rulings and corruption by some commissioners in years past.
The nominating process, however, is being closely watched by public utilities, business groups and environmental organizations to ensure transparency in the vetting and selection of candidates due to the commission’s broad regulatory oversight of entities that provide basic services in New Mexico.
Its decisions affect all consumers by setting rates for utilities, including electricity, water and gas services as well as telecommunications and transportation.
To meet transparency expectations, the nominating committee is webcasting all candidate interviews for direct public observation, said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who is chairing the committee. There’s also a dedicated page on the PRC website, www.nm-prc.org/nominating-committee/cap/, with information about all the nominees.
“From our first meeting, we decided to err on the side of public involvement at every point,” Egolf told the Journal. “Voters made the decision to install a well-informed, professional PRC, and we want to make sure the process has the public’s confidence.”
Bipartisanship is woven into the nominating committee structure, with Republican and Democratic legislators each choosing two representatives to the committee, and the remaining three members nominated by state agencies.
Still, while most groups believe the current interview process appears transparent, some question the committee’s initial screening of potential candidates.
More than 60 people originally applied to the committee to be considered as candidates. But in October, a three-member subcommittee vetted the full list through a closed process that cut it to just 25 nominees. The committee then chose 15 finalists for direct interviews.
“We are happy with the transparency shown by the nominating committee (now) as they whittle down the list, but we must express our disappointment that the same transparency did not exist at the beginning,” New Mexico Business Coalition Executive Director Carla Sontag told the Journal in an email. They “pruned” the list to just over 20 people, “without any transparency on how that was handled.”
Egolf said many applicants simply didn’t meet the minimum educational qualifications or experience. Others failed to complete questionnaires or provide needed information.
“The subcommittee took lots of time to go through the list and make recommendations to the full committee,” Egolf said.
In addition, that initial screening process is best managed confidentially to protect candidates’ personal information, said Doug Howe, longtime utility executive and former PRC commissioner who helped write the constitutional amendment.
“Some of the conversations to vet initial lists must be very frank about a person’s ability and viability to be a candidate,” Howe told the Journal. “If it were me, I wouldn’t want all that to be broadcast.”
The final list of interviewees includes a diverse group of engineers and lawyers with a mix of Democrats, Republicans and independents from around the state, Egolf said.
Apart from professional qualifications, the committee is seeking nominees with balanced outlooks who consider all sides of issues, and who respect state mandates in applying laws, such as the Energy Transition Act, which aims to build a non-carbon electric grid by 2045, Egolf added.
“I’m looking for someone who will approach the job with a perspective of almost judicial-like finesse,” Egolf said.
Many groups provided public input in September, including environmental organizations that stressed the need for candidates who prioritize curbing climate change and building renewable generation.
“Climate change must be at the center of how we move forward,” Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter Director Camilla Feibelman told the Journal. “We need candidates who understand that and are willing to steer the boat toward a renewable future.”
Some groups still oppose the PRC conversion to an appointed commission and remain concerned about loss of voters’ rights to directly elect commissioners, plus the potential for governors to stack the PRC with people aligned with their own policies going forward. Three nonprofits, for example, petitioned the New Mexico Supreme Court in September to overturn the constitutional amendment.
But safeguards are built directly into the reform, including bipartisan balance on the nominating committee, a requirement that governors choose at least one commissioner outside of their own party, and final approval of appointees by the Senate, Howe said.
“No process is completely divorced from politics,” Howe said. “But we tried to make this as balanced as possible.”
Following are the 15 PRC candidates selected for interviews: Gabriel Aguilera, H. Ward Camp, Kenneth W. Costello, Carolyn Glick, Cynthia B. Hall, P. Cholla Khoury, Joseph D. Little, Glen Lyons, Brian K. Moore, Patrick O’Connell, Arthur J. Donnell, Jeffrey H. Peace, Amy L. Stein, Scott Karnes and James F. Ellison.