On May 4, New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioner Ben Hall found himself in Manhattan's luxurious Waldorf Astoria Hotel. He had flown there to meet with representatives of Wall Street's investment firms and ratings agencies for a day-and-a-half-long series of workshops. Pat Vincent-Collawn, the CEO of PNM Resources, Inc. (the parent company of Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM), had also joined the affair—one that was billed as an opportunity for commissioners from across the US to learn how utility regulation impacts Wall Street's outlook on utility stocks and bonds.
Hall cites the New York event as his reason for missing a May 3 open meeting of the PRC. It would be the fifth of 38 open meetings he missed in 2012, coming off a year when former Dist. 3 Commissioner Jerome Block, Jr.'s frequent absences cast a harsh spotlight on attendance problems at the PRC. Largely because of Block's poor attendance record—he missed about one-third of his meetings—one of New Mexico's most powerful public bodies, charged with making critical decisions about health insurance and the cost of electricity, met with all five of its members present in just over half of its 2011 meetings.
Attendance problems have plagued the PRC for years. In a March 2010 case, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson issued a scathing dissent against commissioners for failing to fully attend a four-day series of hearings related to a 2008 PNM emergency rate increase. The justice argued that the commissioners' attendance during proceedings is important because they "sit in a quasi-judicial capacity."
"They adjudicate complex, technical matters that go to the heart of the public interest of our state," Bosson wrote. "We would never tolerate judicial conduct like this; I see no reason to be more permissive of PRC commissioners."
But Doug Howe, who was appointed in November as Block's replacement in Dist. 3, emphasizes the difficulty of a commissioner's schedule.
"Attending every single meeting of the 105 or so you have a year is not realistic," Howe says. "Nobody can meet that standard and fulfill the other parts of their job well."
Howe missed four open meetings in April because he was on a vacation to Australia and New Zealand that he had planned more than a year ago, but he attended two of them via conference call. Those four meetings are Howe's only absences in the 51 total meetings he's had a chance to attend.
So far, though, 2012 represents an improvement in commissioners' attendence. From the beginning of the year until May 3, the commission has met as a full body in roughly 85 percent of its meetings—a figure Howe attributes to commissioners working collaboratively to schedule absences so they don't overlap.
Hall, who missed just two of the 102 open meetings held last year, has been the most frequently absent commissioner in 2012. But when he does miss a meeting, Hall says, he's addressing constituent problems or educating himself on utility regulation.
On May 3, Hall flew to New York under the aegis of Gee Strategies Group, LLC, a Falls Church, Va.-based policy consultancy firm that paid for the airfare and lodging of invited commissioners. Collawn sat on the first panel Hall attended, about the effect of natural gas on the coal market.
Hall says he took the trip to find out why ratings agencies are assigning lower credit scores to New Mexico utilities than to those located in other states. In March, Moody's Investor Service, Inc., had rated PNM's credit Ba1, 10 grades below a AAA credit rating and two below the Baa1 rating most regulated utility companies enjoy. Moody's emphasized a "challenging regulatory environment" as one reason for PNM's rating—nearly junk bond status—and Hall wanted to know why the PRC has so much bearing on PNM's credit rating. Hall says the representatives told him they don't hold elected utility commissions in high regard because "an elected commission is too interested in their constituents and not interested enough in utility companies, which I think is a bunch of bull."
If the trip was educational in credit scoring, it also offered Hall a lesson in New York cuisine. He joined the group at McCormick & Schmick's, a seafood and steak restaurant that features an oyster bar and 6-ounce filet mignons for $30. He received a history lesson when the group dined at New York's historic 21 Club, a prohibition-era speakeasy where main courses start at $32. Hall didn't have to pay for the dinners.
"I want to try to learn something," Hall says. "I'm not trying to get cozy with the Wall Street bankers. I don't even like 'em in the first place."
For his part, Hall vows to be transparent about his schedule.
"If the public wants to know where I was," he says, "I will tell them."
He was absent from a recent meeting because he was in court in Las Cruces, and he'll be absent from at least one meeting next week to attend an Oregon meeting of the Western Conference of Public Service Commissioners, of which he will be named president.
But as of November, two outgoing PRC commissioners, Howe and Dist. 1 Commissioner Jason Marks, will be replaced by newly elected officials. Outgoing Santa Fe County Commissioner Virginia Vigil, the only Dist. 3 candidate who serves on a similar body, has a respectable attendance record on the Board of County Commissioners. Between January 2011 and May 2012, Vigil missed just three of the board's 46 total meetings. Although SFR went to press before election results were finalized, the new commissioners will undoubtedly play an important role in the PRC's attendance record going forward.