PRC commissioners confirmed by Senate after pointed questions about nominating process - Albuquerque Journal

PRC commissioners confirmed by Senate after pointed questions about nominating process

New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioners Patrick O’Connell, center, and Gabriel Aguilera, second from right, smile during a Senate Rules Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday, while commissioner James Ellison, second from left, and Caroline Buerkle with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office look on. All three PRC appointees were confirmed by the Senate. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — New Mexico’s three recently-appointed Public Regulation Commission members won confirmation Wednesday by the state Senate, after facing questions about their business interests, past industry ties and plans to modernize the scandal-plagued agency.

Despite the sometimes pointed questions, commissioners James Ellison, Gabriel Aguilera and Patrick O’Connell each were confirmed by decisive votes by both the Senate Rules Committee and, later in the day, the full Senate.

“I see this as an opportunity for the three PRC commissioners to do something new,” said Sen. Brenda McKenna, D-Corrales, during Wednesday’s committee hearing.

The confirmation hearings came after an overhaul of the utilities commission, which took effect this year, yielded an ethics complaint and one commissioner resigning just days after being appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for not meeting a minimum education requirement in state law.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, questioned the appointed commissioners, who were selected by the governor after being recommended by a nominating commission, about whether they have financial interests in any of the utilities regulated by the Public Regulation Commission.

He also expressed concern about the nominating commission, which included former House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat who was the target of an ethics complaint after he appointed himself.

“I do think the process was tainted, not by you but by others,” Moores told Ellison during the Senate Rules Committee hearing.

Meanwhile, O’Connell faced several questions about his past work for both New Mexico Gas Company and the Public Service Company of New Mexico, which is one of the largest utilities regulated by the PRC.

O’Connell recently recused himself from any involvement in the matter of a proposed merger between PNM and Connecticut-based energy giant Avangrid, but did not commit Wednesday to recusing himself from future PNM rate adjustment cases. The PRC rejected the proposed merger in December 2021 and an appeal is currently pending in the state Supreme Court.

Several senators lauded O’Connell for his decision to recuse himself, with Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, saying, “It’s not a conflict of interest to have worked for somebody.”

In addition, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, called public criticism of O’Connell “unfair.”

“He’s someone who understands what the PRC does,” Wirth said.

For his part, O’Connell vowed in response to a question to always “make my decisions based on New Mexico’s public interest.”

Ultimately, O’Connell’s appointment was approved on a 31-3 vote, with three Democratic senators casting “no” votes — Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces, Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez of Albuquerque and Bill Tallman of Albuquerque.

Both Aguilera, who previously worked at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Ellison, who worked at Sandia National Laboratories, were approved without any dissenting votes.

The three commissioners started their new jobs last month, though Ellison was appointed shortly after his two fellow commissioners to fill a vacancy caused by Brian Moore’s decision to abruptly resign.

Since their appointments were subject to Senate confirmation, the three commissioners could have been removed from office if senators had voted down their nominations.

New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission had been a five-member body with elected voters until statewide voters approved a 2020 constitutional amendment that overhauled the regulatory body by changing it into a three-member commission whose members are appointed.

Backers of the overhaul said the change would modernize the PRC by ensuring commissioners meet certain education and professional experience requirements.

In previous years, various PRC commissioners faced legal issues and public corruption scandals.

Those sagas included at least two former commissioners, Jerome Block Jr. and Carol Sloan, resigning or being removed from office after being convicted of felony offenses.

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