Hearing waylaid

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A hearing to determine if Socorro Electric Cooperative will need to release more than just the names of its members to interested parties ended abruptly on Oct. 11 when the judge asked the attorney for petitioners Charlene West, Carol Pittman and Sara Robinson to rewrite a writ of mandamus.

The issue is whether co-op members who are running for office can ask for fellow district members' names and addresses. Several candidates for district trustee seats had requested the information and the co-op provided them with only names, no addresses.

The hearing started out with Seventh Judicial District Judge Matthew Reynolds saying he had no jurisdiction to make a decision on the writ. But he agreed to listen to arguments from both petitioners and the co-op.

After spending a significant amount of bantering time, the attorneys were able to show Reynolds a precedent setting case which allowed him to have jurisdiction over the decision.

Lee DesChamps, the attorney working with the complainants, had found a state statute, part of the Public Utilities Act, saying people have the right to request that information and receive it as long as they have a "proper purpose" for doing so.

Co-op attorney Lorna Wiggins said the co-op, in its bylaws written in 1985, has the right to refuse to give out personal information, such as addresses and social security numbers, to anyone. She said it is a right to privacy issue.

"Are you saying policy overrides state statute?" Reynolds asked her.

Wiggins said the people requesting the information have to also state their proper purpose before receiving anything. When they did so they received the names of the co-op members, but learned that there is no proper purpose that overrides the privacy of the members to allow the addresses to be released.

She gave the example of the 9/11 Commission having asked the co-op to release the addresses and the co-op refusing to do so.

"Even for national security?" the judge asked.

"No," she said.

Reynolds, after looking up the state law and reading it, said he thinks the burden is on the corporation to show that there is no proper purpose, not on the petitioner to show that there is.

Also, after being shown the co-op bylaw, he noted that the policy they were using to deny access to information comes under a heading of credit information.

"It seems like that was more to protect members from credit companies," Reynolds said.

Finally, co-op attorneys brought in case precedent that determined a writ must include everything it is asking for and not rely on other documents.

The judge agreed and directed DesChamps to resubmit the writ for consideration.

The consideration of the writ has not been rescheduled yet.