Saturday, May 24, 2014


PRC candidates Merrie Lee Soules and Sandy Jones present a sharp contrast.

Personally, I like them both.

I met Jones, a “good-old-boy” sort, while he was working for Sierra County. I was trying to solve a land problem there. He was cooperative, helpful, and quite knowledgeable.

I've heard Merrie Lee Soules speak several times, and have been impressed with what she said and how she said it. She appears thoughtful and knowledgeable.

Jones is “a New Mexico native” and Soules “grew up in Las Cruces.” 
But their qualifications, priorities, and reputations differ.

Jones has experience on the PRC. (He left in 2010 to run unsuccessfully for State Land Commissioner.) He's also run his own construction company in T or C for many years. While Soules spent much of her career elsewhere, Jones has remained in New Mexico continually.

Soules has extensive business experience, including 20 years as an executive with a division of General Motors. She also has an Electrical Engineering degree from Cleveland State and a Harvard MBA. Her background is an interesting mix of practical and theoretical. Soules has viewed the business and technical world from a variety of viewpoints, and likely has a broad perspective on issues.

Their priorities are clearly different.

Soules is a strong proponent of renewable energy, without short-changing the importance of oil and gas to New Mexico's economy. Her decades at GM suggest she's not some wide-eyed neophyte lacking practical business sense.

Jones is viewed as more of an “oil and gas man.” He's endorsed strongly by industry lobbyist Carla Sonntag. Folks whose top priority is maximizing utilities' profits and minimizing pesky environmental concerns apparently prefer Jones.

On the other side, former State Senator Steve Fischmann says he's consistently seen Jones “putting oil and gas interests over consumer welfare. He consistently voted to limit consumer access to cost-saving solar energy and threw up road blocks to energy efficiency proposals that would have resulted in a cleaner, less expensive electrical grid.” Not surprisingly, Fischmann backs Soules.

Former Commissioner Jason Marks recalls that he and Jones differed philosophically on whether the PRC's duty was merely “to keep industry within legal bounds” or “to promote policies in the public interest that the utilities might not be ready to adopt on their own.”

Jones “didn't support pushing utilities faster than they wanted to go.” Marks believed that solar “would be a huge part of New Mexico's future energy supply.” He and others sought to push the utilities to increase their involvement with renewable energy. Jones opposed them, and supported El Paso Electric. “He thought industry with its expertise should be permitted to make the decision. I believed we had a responsibility to look at the facts and come up with the public policies that were best,” commented Marks.

Marks notes that in 2007 New Mexico provided solar energy to about 60-100 homes. By the end of 2012, that number was more like 65,000 homes. Had Jones's position prevailed, the increase would have been a fraction of that.

Meanwhile, local Tea Partyists back Jones, perhaps because of his preference that the PRC defer more to the utilities.

Unfortunately, Jones is associated with a time when the PRC was so rife with scandal (and Commissioners so short on real qualifications) that in 2012 New Mexico voters enacted three reform measures.

Jerome Block committed crimes. David King (nephew of Bruce King) cost us $84,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim. Carol Sloan was convicted of felony assault but refused to leave office until the New Mexico Supreme Court ordered her to.

Jones was convicted of nothing.

Jones was criticized for hiring an assistant, Elizabeth Martin, who'd been convicted twice of embezzlement. He knew of the convictions, but praised “her work ethic.” (She must have had political connections most felons don't. Governor King pardoned her first conviction – and hired her as an administrative assistant. Ten years later she pled guilty to embezzlement again. Jones hired her two years after she was sentenced to months in prison and three years of supervised release. After complaints, Jones suspended her while the matter was referred to AG Gary King, but then reinstated her soon afterward, saying an AG ruling could take months.)

The hiring apparently wasn't illegal, although it didn't help repair the old PRC's reputation.

Folks who claim Jones was corrupt seem not to have first-hand knowledge or readily available evidence. Marks, who disagreed with Jones on some key issues, portrays Jones as “principled” and “caring about the State,” and says he believes Jones acted on his view of what would be best for the state. I discount the statements by unknown persons we can't cross-examine concerning Mr. Jones, as well as those suggesting we blame Ms. Soules for the fact that GM is recalling a lot of automobiles.

These two candidates who represent two very different points-of-view and backgrounds. Each may appeal strongly to one group or another.

The main points are that the PRC matters, and your vote matters.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, May 25th -- and treats Mr. Jones far more kindly than it would if I wrote it today.]
[Update 27May2014: the Albuquerque Journal and the Las Cruces Sun-News have now endorsed Ms. Soules in this important but often overlooked race.]
[Early Saturday evening our neighbor dropped by with a leaflet from Merrie Lee Soules.  Our neighbor had read it, thought Ms. Soules looked like a potential breath of fresh air on the PRC, and wondered what we thought.
Moments later I went out to the mailbox.  It contained a flyer from Sandy Jones.  The difference between the two flyers would tell any knowledgeable person all we need to know about why it's terribly important to vote for Ms. Soules, and keep Mr. Jones away from the PRC.
The Soules flyer is primarily about why she's a good bet for us.  She does truthfully state (as does my column, more or less) that "At one time four out of the five commissioners, including  current candidate Sandy Jones, were facing criminal charges or engaged in other questionable behavior."
The Jones flyer not only makes a stupid and misleading attack on Ms. Soules but says things about himself that are comically misleading to anyone with any knowledge.
On one side, he says Ms. Soules spent ten years managing a GM plant in Mexico and implies that (a) she did so to avoid worker-protection and U.S. wages and (b) somehow had the power to make that decision for G.M.
Among his howlers about himself, e writes that while on the PRC he "wrote the most aggressive renewable energy standards in the nation."  Even if he can show some tenuous connection to literal truth, this claim regarding renewable energy is a cynical joke when he knows he had his foot on the brakes as hard as he could.   
Meanwhile his suggestion that Ms. Soules is against worker protection and reasonable wages is thoroughly misleading.]

Some important aspects of Jones's record at the PRC

When Ms. Soules refers to the “old” PRC it's not necessary to any defined corruption, but to a way of doing business that needed to change.

If you read articles from back when Jones and the others were on the board, the PRC didn't operate in the way we'd want to – so much so that there was one proposed amendment to abolish it.

Four years ago, the PRC either violated the open-meetings law or used a loophole to evade it's purposes in a just-barely-legal way. The members met, sequentially, one at a time, with the Insurance Commissioner. There's no question they discussed public business. There's no question that having each discuss something in turn with one of their number, or another person, is legally as impermissible as having a joint discussion. There's no question that they supervised the Insurance Commissioner.

They claimed, though, that because the subject of discussion wasn't directly within their jurisdiction, they didn't violate the law. This was never legally tested, as far as I know. But Jason Marks, even then, said they were doing wrong. “My position on this is that even if we meet the legal requirements of [the Open Meetings Act] and IPRA [Inspection of Public Records Act], that shouldn't be our standard. Our standard should be to be as open as possible,” he was quoted as saying in 2010.

Sandy Jones said no such thing.

Jones did apparently take the lead in the PRC's effort to muzzle whistleblowers who leaded information embarrassing to the PRC but of public interest.

In September 2010, Jones pursued efforts to identify and fire the employee he believed had leaked an audit report published by the Santa Fe Independent. New Mexico Foundation for Open Government called his actions illegal. “Retaliation against such a person would be extremely unwise – if they win in court, they are entitled to double back pay, among other things,” NM FOG director Sarah Welsh said at the time. (The “other things” include the wrongly-fired-employee's attorney fees, which can mount up.)

In fact, the audit hadn't even been leaked. It had been procured through an IPRA Request, which legally mandated showing the document to the newspaper.

Jones, though, pursued trying to fire the person, showing questionable judgment, arguable disrespect for law, and a spirit far from the spirit of openness Ms. Soules says she wants to bring to the PRC. He wasn't alone. The PRC's attorney said it the document hadn't been cleared for dissemination but was in “mid-process.” But my own impression is that the document had to be produced under IPRA; and again, whatever the legal requirements, Jones's conduct didn't show a desire to maximize openness in government.

The PRC then argued the issue, and, according to a contemporary report, “During the meeting, Commissioner Sandy Jones demanded that Division officials 'name names' of employees who had access to what Jones described as a 'leaked' document.”

“'Who gave him the letter?' Jones demanded, referring to the audit report. 'Who has access to the letter? Name who has access to that letter. Who? Who? Who? What are the names? I want to know who gave the letter to the press.'”

Jones called for the employee to be identified and fired.

Not only was he arguably demanding that the PRC violate the law, a union official said Jones was coming very close to trespassing in personnel issues.

“I don't think the press has free and open access to everything done in government,” Jones insisted, arguing that because the document was marked “draft” it should not have been released. Commissioner Marks (and the law) disagreed. Marks said the “draft” stamp was no reason to avoid public discussion.

“This [audit] is not going to be changed,” Marks reportedly told the Commission. “We've been told to address it and the press has it already. Why are we trying to hunt down a leak and sweep this under the rug. What do you guys think your job is? Who do you think you work for?”

Reportedly, this discussion was mainly between Marks for open government and Jones against it, with the other three “remaining largely silent.”

Asked Marks, “Exactly why is this confidential, legally? And, as a policy issue, what are you guys trying to hide? The purpose of the Open Meetings Act is that the citizens to whom we're accountable know what their government is up to . . . The purpose of the law is not to protect us from being embarrassed.”

But Jones replied that the PRC needed “to protect the sanctity of the process.”

Does this sound like a guy we should be in a rush to put back on the PRC?

Not if we're proponents of open government. Not if we're proponents of strongly encouraging a shift to renewable and non-polluting energy resources. Not if we're interested in public servants who recognize the bounds of their power and are comfortable staying within those bounds. Or who place the public interest above their own convenience and avoiding embarrassment to the PRC.

No comments:

Post a Comment