The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously to halve the number of regular open meetings it will hold and to set aside days for closed-door sessions. Public advocates criticized the changes while the state’s largest electric utility supported them.
The commission will hold regular open meetings every other Thursday beginning July 13. Its current schedule has open meetings every Wednesday. It will schedule closed-door sessions “as needed” every other Thursday, on the weeks regular meetings are not held, the PRC said.
“I see a lot of advantages to having more time to consider matters, being able to edit orders, get feedback from other commissioners, and have time to write a dissent or something in agreement to provide a different slant on the issue,” Commissioner James Ellison said in a statement.
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the number of closed-door meetings the PRC has held has been increasing in recent years, from 10 in 2021 to 16 in 2022 and 18 so far this year.
Regulators say they expect to consider the same number of docketed cases despite the reduction in open meetings. Commissioner Gabriel Aguilera has requested a review of the commission’s open meeting schedule.
“The goal is to offer consistency and predictability,” Aguilera said. “For most proceedings, the public should have a pretty good sense on how we are going to rule, and for me, that means we are making decisions based on the law and on precedent. That’s what this process is about.”
The commission said it can also schedule “open special meetings” on an as-needed basis.
Public Service Company of New Mexico, the state’s largest electric utility, said it believes the PRC “has set a reasonable schedule,” adding that “if additional open meetings prove to be necessary to conduct commission business in a timely manner, the commission can revisit those guidelines.”
But public advocates say the revised meeting schedule means less transparency into the commission’s decision-making process and may run afoul of the state’s Open Meetings Act requirements.
“It is disturbing that the commissioners want to meet behind closed doors and hide their deliberations from public scrutiny,” Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, said in an email.
The state’s open meetings law “permits only narrow exceptions for closed meetings and it is worrisome that the commissioners are institutionalizing, in advance of alleged need, a process that is inaccessible to the public,” Nanasi said.
The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government urged regulators to “reconsider and adopt a resolution opening all the meetings.”
“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 exceptions,” the group said in a statement. “FOG believes any attempt to engage in a public decision-making process without including the public is a violation of the public’s trust.”
The Open Meetings Act requires the public to be advised in advance of the items to be discussed in closed session, FOG said, and which provisions of the law authorize the closed discussion. Allowable reasons to hold a closed meeting include discussions of some personnel matters, administrative adjudicatory deliberations, certain purchases and litigation, according to the group.
Transparency is needed “not just for its own sake, but for the public to hold officials accountable for their decisions and the impact of those decisions,” Nanasi said.