Co-op board denies payment to trustee

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Socorro Electric Cooperative Trustee Charlie Wagner suggested he may sue his colleagues on the board of trustees after they again denied him reimbursement for expenses he incurred more than two years ago.

At the May 23 board of trustees meeting, the board revisited the question of whether Wagner was entitled to reimbursement for attending an Environmental Improvement Board hearing in March of 2010.

Prior to that hearing, Socorro Electric’s board passed a resolution in opposition of a New Energy Economy petition calling for EIB to place strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions. But when Wagner went to the hearing in Santa Fe, he did not follow the company line when he spoke on the matter.

While other Socorro Electric officials attended the hearing and received reimbursement, Wagner was made to pay out of his own pocket. None of the other officials from Socorro spoke at the hearing.

The co-op’s attorney, Lorna Wiggins, told the board at last week’s meeting that Wagner had the right as a private citizen to express his views.

“The question is if he was acting in an official capacity or on his own behalf,” she said, adding that if Wagner spoke independently he would not be entitled to reimbursement.

“I thought we did this already,” Trustee Dave Wade said while the matter was being argued.

In fact, the board had addressed the question before. Going against the advice of the co-op attorney at the time, Dennis Francish, the board voted not to grant Wagner reimbursement for his travel and per diem. Francish said then that the board had previously approved reimbursement for any trustee that wanted to attend the hearing and Wagner was entitled to the payment, just as the others were.

Co-op President Paul Bustamante referred to a letter Francish wrote outlining his legal opinion on the matter, but Bustamante had a different view.

“Mr. Wagner can’t wear two hats,” he said.

Wagner said it was within the scope of his duties as trustee to speak at the meeting and that his comments were neutral.

“My reason for speaking was the argument was made in such a way that it was a choice — if you want cheap energy you have to have dirty air. I don’t agree,” he said. “My arguments weren’t pro or con. My argument was with the way the choice was staged.”

Wagner, a leader in the movement to reform the co-op and who is often at odds with other members of the board, said his remarks were made in the interest of the co-op’s shareholders.

He said the board’s decision to deny him reimbursement was a way for other trustees to punish him for the stand he’s taken on reform.

“You have no authority to limit freedom of speech,” he told his colleagues. “This is something a couple of other trustees wanted to harass me about … Do you want to continue the harassment?”

Trustee Donald Wolberg called Wagner’s argument “convoluted” and that Wagner violated the principles of the co-op by speaking out against something the board had voted to support.

Trustee Prescilla Mauldin, however, didn’t think it was right for Wagner to have to pay his own way, while other trustees who attended the meeting were paid for attending the hearing. She made a motion to reimburse Wagner, but the motion was defeated by a 6-2 vote, with Mauldin and Wagner in the minority.

Wagner insisted on a roll call vote. “Because there could be a lawsuit,” he said.

In Other Business

  • During approval of expenditures, Wagner questioned a payment made to an election judge at the last month’s annual meeting. Wagner said he didn’t know if the election judge was related to Trustee Leroy Anaya but noted they shared the same surname and that there is a bylaw that doesn’t allow relatives of trustees to be employed by the co-op.

Trustee Anaya didn’t respond, but others came to his defense.

“Socorro’s a small town,” Wolberg said, dismissing the question.

Wagner asked for the attorney for an interpretation. Before she would look up the bylaw, Bustamante rendered his own opinion, noting that the payment was for only $60.

“It doesn’t apply. They (judges) are not employed by the co-op,” he said.

Wagner contended that if someone was paid, they were employed.

  • Wagner also questioned a $7,000 payment made last month to the Kennedy Han law firm, which is defending a countersuit against Socorro Electric brought on behalf of its members.

Including two other payments made to Kennedy Han totaling more than $37,000 earlier this year, and fees made to other attorneys, Wagner said the lawsuit Socorro Electric brought against its members in an effort to block bylaws that call for increased transparency has cost the co-op more than $100,000.

When a judge ruled against the co-op last year, he awarded attorneys representing members a total of $13,000.

“I think it’s unfair we’re paying co-op attorneys over $100,000 and defense attorneys only got $13,000,” Wagner said.

  • The board spent nearly a half hour in executive session discussing personnel matters and a lawsuit brought by former co-op accountant/office manager Kathy Torres against the co-op and trustees Bustamante and Wagner. Torres, who was fired in August 2010, is alleging discrimination, defamation, retaliation, breach of implied contract and breach of good faith and fair dealing.

The next board of trustees meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 27.

 


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