Members still mad as hell

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At Wednesday’s Socorro Electric Cooperative board of trustees meeting, member-owners of the private, non-profit corporation picked up where they left off at the annual meeting two weeks earlier, railing against the board of trustees during the public comment period.

Charlene West of Lemitar, a leader in the movement to reform the co-op, told the board that it was clear from the hostile atmosphere and result of the voting at the annual meeting that members demanded change.

“The jeering was bad, but you have to see where they are coming from. They are angry,” she said.

She then called for Co-op Board President Paul Bustamante to resign, to which he responded that he had already survived a recall election in his district a year ago.

Herbert Myers of Socorro accused the board of rigging a youth essay contest, alleging two of the winners were relatives of a former trustee and current co-op employee.

He also questioned why the co-op’s office manager, Eileen Latasa, and her husband were to serve as chaperones on the Government in Action Youth Tour trip to Washington D.C. He called for an investigation by an independent party to dispel “feelings of mistrust in the community.”

“The co-op must not be viewed as a corrupt sponsor of junkets given to insiders or conspirators in unfair contests arranged for predetermined outcomes at members’ expense,” Myers said. “Avoiding the appearance of scandal is not enough. We must avoid scandalous actions in spirit and behavior, as well. This co-op must learn to be above reproach.”

John Frederick of Tierra Grande was critical of the board’s decision to suspend awarding renewable energy credits. The program offered credit to customers who produce their own energy.

Frederick said he invested in the program and thought it reprehensible renewable energy credits were be taken away.

“When you take RECs away, and when you take my money away, you’re using it to subsidize other accounts,” he said. “I don’t think that’s right … I don’t see that you own that.”

Another man from Tierra Grande spoke next. James Bockensttet said his comments were meant to help the board build and maintain an effective organization, but what he had to say prompted Trustee Wolberg to lash out in anger.

Bockensttet said members had for too long been kicked around by trustees, and what happened at the annual meeting was a clear message of no confidence in the board. He then addressed Wolberg, an adjunct professor at New Mexico Tech, saying he could have an undergraduate explain it to him.

“That’s not fair; I can’t comment (during public input),” Wolberg yelled. “You want to be an idiot, be an idiot.”

After the interruption, Bockensttet continued with a prepared statement that was expressive and pointed, referring to the trustees “corrupt cronies.”

“You are spurious cohorts full of arrogance and disdain towards the good members of this co-op. You have taken prevarication and duplicitous behavior to the highest level. Corruption and nefarious subterfuge are hallmarks or your reign of terror,” he said.

Bockensttet called State Auditor Hector Balderas’ appearance as a guest speaker at the annual meeting a “quintessential moment of irony.”

He finished by urging trustees to quit acting like grade-school bullies toward members and refrain from making disparaging remarks about them.

Mad as Hell

The public comment period ended with a surprise speaker.

Latasa, the co-op’s office manager, started by saying she was speaking as a member of the co-op and not as an employee. She went on to say that at the April 14 annual meeting she was disgusted and embarrassed by the actions of people who proudly call themselves reformers and justify their behavior in saying they are mad as hell and can’t take it anymore.

“Well, I, too, am mad as hell and can’t take it anymore,” she said.

Latasa said she was embarrassed to hear reformers jeer and shout at members of the board of trustees – the same people they had elected to represent them. She was also embarrassed for Balderas, whose speech was interrupted by catcalls from the audience, and two other scheduled speakers who decided to forgo their speech due to the restless crowd.

President Bustamante earned praise from Latasa for sticking with the agenda and going through with the presentation of awards to students who won scholarships and essay and coloring contests. She said she applauded the trustees for maintaining their dignity while under fire.

Latasa went on to address two letters to the editor that appeared in El Defensor Chieftain on April 18, saying both letter writers were off base with their remarks.

Finally, Latasa addressed the behavior of Trustee Wagner, who it recently came to light had secretly recorded meetings during executive sessions, which are supposed to be confidential. She said doing so was “dumb” and was a breach of his fiduciary duty as a co-op trustee.

A resident of Magdalena, a part of the district Wagner represents, Latasa said she voted for Wagner in 2005 because she felt his experience as a former National Rural Electric Cooperative Association employee would be an asset to Socorro Electric. Now, she thought of him as a hypocrite for championing open meetings rules and following proper procedures, then acting in violation of those same principles.

“What makes you think you are above the law, for violating the very resolutions you and your ‘uniformed cynics’ have passed and require the board to follow?” she asked, adding that reformers have proclaimed him the Messiah and his words as gospel. “We are not so ignorant that we don’t know the difference between right and wrong, and you violated the very rules of parliamentary procedure that every board and council, whether public or private, throughout the land adhere to and follow.”

Latasa finished by urging Wagner to do what was moral and just and resign his position of trustee.

Censuring Wagner

At the end of the meeting the board took action to censure Wagner. It was the second time in less than two years it has done so – the last time for speaking on the subject of proposed environmental laws at a hearing in Santa Fe.

This time, Bustamante said it was because Wagner had tape recorded executive sessions. Bustamante also demanded that Wagner return copies of recordings he made during at last four meetings.

“Shame on you, Mr. Wagner,” Bustamante said. “Those tapes were made without the knowledge or consent of anyone who participated. Executive sessions are confidential. Secretly taping executive sessions breaches the code of ethics.”

Wagner has admitted to taping the sessions, saying he was justified in doing so because the board wasn’t following the Open Meetings Act, so the meetings were null and void.

The president also banned Wagner from future executive sessions and from attending any meetings of committees he is a part of, as well as state and national association conferences. If Wagner failed to adhere to the conditions, he would be removed from his position as trustee, Bustamante said.

Wolberg made the motion to censure Wagner.

“He probably tried to record every executive session and taken off like a thief in the night property that belongs to Socorro Electric Cooperative,” Wolberg said.

Wolberg said Wagner’s actions jeopardized the evaluation of employees and litigation that has been brought against the co-op, topics that are confidentially discussed during executive sessions.

Bustamante said Wagner had 10 days to turn over the tapes.

“Fat chance of that,” Wagner responded. “This isn’t the first time you’ve accused me without any proof, and it’s not the first time you voted against me without any basis of fact.”

When he was interrupted, Wagner began shouting, “You had an annual meeting and didn’t follow the bylaws! You sued the members!”

Wagner then walked over to the Bruce Wiggins, a co-op attorney, and handed him a letter. The letter outlines what he claims are violations of the Open Meetings Act and Roberts Rules of Order during the annual meeting and other board meetings. It accuses Bustamante of failing to properly perform his duties as chairperson of the meetings.

“An attorney representing the interest of the corporation and its owners should be hired to sue the chairman to enforce the corporation’s bylaws,” the letter states. “He must be held accountable due to the damage caused by his actions, which prevented the membership’s right to transact new business during the (annual) meeting.”

The letter goes on to say that by taking action to sue all of the co-op’s approximately 10,000 members in an effort to block bylaws passed at the annual meeting in 2010, the board exhibited “disloyalty” to its members and was “a grievous self serving breach of the trustees’ fiduciary responsibility.”

That’s Not All

Wagner was censured again moments later.

Wolberg said that Wagner behaved inappropriately toward co-op attorney Lorna Wiggins during the annual meeting, abusing and harassing her. Wolberg said he thought Lorna Wiggins probably was within her rights to file a lawsuit for harassment.

“We as a board have to stand up,” said Wolberg, who then made the motion to censor Wagner for harassment.

Bustamante said he witnessed Wagner slapping his hands near the attorney’s face and that Wagner at least owed her an apology.

Both votes to censure Wagner were approved 7-1, with Wagner casting the lone no vote.

The board then voted to go into executive session to discuss litigation brought against the co-op by former employees. Barred from the session, Wagner left the room claiming that the board was violating OMA by not stating which of two lawsuits brought by former employees would be discussed.

 


-- Email the author at tslast@dchieftain.com.