Utility board's perk may disappear

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By David Giuliani

MORA — Customers of an electric cooperative serving rural areas in northeastern New Mexico may vote on proposals to cut the utility’s Board of Trustees’ costs and give the membership more control.

Three months ago, a group of customers that has opposed the Board of Trustees of the Mora-San Miguel Electric Cooperative presented six proposed amendments to the bylaws.

The group’s proposals call for establishing a nepotism policy, enacting term limits, requiring special meetings to have the approval of the board, eliminating insurance for part-time trustees, requiring more polling sites for cooperativewide elections and preventing bylaws from being changed until they’ve been in effect three years.

The group -— consisting of John Pintek, Rey Herrera and Daniel Fondy, among others — has been successful before. Last summer, it convinced the membership at the annual meeting to reduce the number of trustees from 11 members to five. The trustees tried to reverse that election by holding another vote during the middle of a business day in December, but the membership came out in force and rejected that maneuver. Now, the board is set to drop to five members.

Over a two-year period, the 11-member board cost the utility $254,000 for health insurance, meeting payments and conventions. Other part-time employees at the cooperative don’t receive health insurance, said Rudy Romero, the utility’s manager.

Diego Quintana, a trustee from Pecos, is targeting the board’s health insurance with a proposed amendment he will be putting before members at the June 28 annual meeting. He wants the cooperative to do away with such a perk for trustees.

“I’ve been here for nine years. I’ve never taken the health insurance. I don’t believe consumers should be paying for it. It’s not the trustees’ right,” he said. “I’m now doing something about it.”

He, like the opposition group, is proposing an increase in the number of polling places. The bylaws have always required cooperativewide elections to take place in Mora, but places such as Pecos are well more than an hour away from Mora.

“We are always at a disadvantage because Mora is so far,” Quintana said.

Because of that, he said, Mora gets greater say over the utility, which he said he wants to change.

Quintana’s proposal calls for polling places in all five districts, while the opposition group seeks such sites in Pecos and Las Vegas, in addition to Mora.

At the trustees’ monthly meeting this week, members of the opposition group wanted to know when they would get an answer on their proposals. The group maintains that it has enough signatures for the proposals to appear on the ballot at the annual meeting.

Herrera, who belongs to the opposition group, said they presented the changes to the bylaws at the request of the utility’s chairman, Carlos Lovato. He said the utility promised a relatively quick response.

Nicolas Leger, the utility’s attorney, said the cooperative would have to check the wording of the proposals before approving them for the ballot. He said the utility would meet the deadline of 45 days before the annual meeting.

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Lovato defended the cooperative during its monthly meeting, saying criticism of its operations is unwarranted.

He said critics have contended the utility, which serves more than 10,500 customers, is doing so poorly that it can’t get loans. He noted Sen. Pete Domenici’s announcement last week that the cooperative would get a $5.8 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan to build 123 miles of new distribution lines and make improvements in other areas, including 45 miles of already existing power lines.

Lovato also showed a letter from an official from the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service praising the utility and its staff for its performance.

However, Pintek wondered aloud why the customers couldn’t get money back if things were going so well.

Lovato said that has happened before but that the utility would need a higher level of equity.

Felix Vigil, another trustee, said the utility has kept its rates as low as possible.

“We have to keep certain margins to pay our bills,” he said.

Lovato added that the cooperative is a “pass-through” business, meaning that customers’ payments go directly to service.

Herrera, another critic, said the cooperative should look for ways to save money.

Vigil later noted that electric cooperatives were getting “bad press” and needed to get out their positive stories.

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Trustee Quintana reported that he recently attended a board meeting for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., a Westminster, Colo.-based firm that provides electricity for Mora-San Miguel and 43 other rural electric cooperatives in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.

He said board members agreed to give $50,000 from the association for the Democratic Party convention in Denver. He said the members agreed to donate the money after a request from Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter. Board members believed that such a contribution may make it easier to get Colorado to agree to power plants, he said.

Lovato, a staunch Republican, took exception.

“It’s in their best interest to give to the Republicans, too,” he said.