Pargas: Co-op meeting a ‘Jerry Springer Show’

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The mayor of Socorro expressed irritation about the way Socorro Electric Cooperative conducts business during the Socorro City Council’s regular meeting Monday, even broaching the possibility of putting the city’s electricity franchise out for bid to get a different provider.

During the old business portion of the agenda, Mayor Ravi Bhasker said his old business is “the chaos that is the Socorro Electric Co-op election,” which was held last Saturday at Finley Gym to elect SEC’s District III trustee.

The city is working on giving a monopoly franchise to a company to sell electricity to its member/owners, he said.

“And to see the chaos that happens at the election, and the partisanship that is displayed and allowed to be displayed by the co-op directors … I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bhasker said. “And then, have a meeting that then negates the over 200 people … that came to vote, me included.”

Bhasker noted apologetically that he left the meeting after voting.

“But I thought that when you went to vote, and you signed in and you signed an affidavit, that that was your vote,” Bhasker said. “And that’s what you’re doing, is you’re voting — and whoever wins is fine.”

Bhasker said the city is contemplating awarding a franchise to a company that, in his opinion, doesn’t follow its own bylaws. He said that when the District III vote was not to the liking of some people, they encouraged others “in a loud, loud fashion” to leave the meeting and cancel the quorum — and therefore also cancel the election results.

“Well, according to their bylaws, they even say that their mail-ins count towards the quorum,” Bhasker said. “So I don’t know what kind of legal advice they’re getting, what’s happening.”

Bhasker said he plans to ask the city’s legal counsel to look into trying to put some constraints on how a business that gets a city franchise conducts its business, and to make sure the way it conducts business is in the best interest of the citizens using the electricity.

Councilor Ernest Pargas attended the co-op’s District III meeting and attempted to describe the proceedings.

“I can’t even say the words to describe — it was like children were just throwing tantrums when they didn’t get their way,” Pargas said.

“They’re dysfunctional, that’s the word,” Sherry McGuire, a citizen attending the meeting, offered.

Bhasker asked people to imagine what it would be like if such things happened at a City Council or mayoral election. He asked: What if everyone left town after the city election, and the city election was nullified because everyone was out of town?

Pargas added he saw one person who was not counted as part of the quorum because the man had removed his wristband.

“Well, that’s just goofy,” Bhasker said. “And dysfunctional.”

Bhasker added he heard that one of the trustees made a motion, then seconded their own motion. He said if the SEC board of trustees allows that kind of thing to continue, he doesn’t know how the city can allow the SEC to have a franchise. He reminded the council that during the last meeting, they had discussed the possibility voters could bring a referendum to vote on the franchise in a citywide election if public finds the city’s agreement unacceptable.

Bhasker said he found it unbelievable that certain people were allowed to control the SEC meeting with tantrums and dysfunctional behavior. He said if a City Council meeting became as unruly as last Saturday’s SEC meeting, he would recess the meeting or “hit ‘em with my gavel.”

Pargas said he ventured out of his comfort zone to vote and fulfill his duties as an SEC member/owner “and that’s the ‘Jerry Springer Show’ that I got.”

Bhasker said he had the same feeling about the SEC meeting. He could have relaxed at home and watched football, but he went to vote for the city, his businesses and himself.

Councilor Toby Jaramillo said long before Saturday’s meeting, the city had been receiving “complaint after complaint” about how the co-op treats its customers.

“And I think that’s uncalled for,” Jaramillo said.

Bhasker said the city can only intervene through its franchise agreement — or the city could just put up its franchise to have some other company bid on it.

Bhasker, who owns the Holiday Inn Express in Socorro, shared an anecdote as an example. He said the Holiday Inn corporation — the franchiser — told him his hotel couldn’t have an exterior corridor because that was a Holiday Inn standard. The franchiser told him either build another hotel, or they will give the franchise to someone else.

“So they demanded what we could do and what we couldn’t do,” Bhasker said, “although they had no ownership.”

Bhasker reasoned the city is the franchiser and the co-op is the franchisee, and the franchisee has a set of standards they have to follow. He acknowledged there may be a state statute that says otherwise, but he didn’t know.

“We have to demand some level of credibility for a company that does business in Socorro that we give a franchise to,” Bhasker said.

Bhasker directed city staff to put another public hearing about the co-op franchise on the agenda for the next City Council meeting, which is Dec. 2. It will be the third public hearing so far in the city’s process to develop its electric franchise agreement; the first two hearings were held during the regular meetings Oct. 7 and Nov. 4.

City Clerk Pat Salome said the co-op is not totally unregulated outside the franchise agreement. He noted the state Public Regulation Commission regulates rates, the cooperative industry has some jurisdiction and the SEC’s corporate status means it must adhere to those standards also. He said the franchise agreement needs to reflect that; the old agreement makes no mention of those things.

“I think we’ve got to go out of our way — not to tell them how to do business, but that we’re going to be watching closely when it comes to their corporate status, their status as a cooperative and their ability to charge fees (that conform to PRC regulations),” Salome said.

“And carry on business in a fashion that is legal,” Bhasker said. “They had a lawyer sitting right there, but I don’t know if they read the bylaws or not.”

Before the public hearings commenced, the city began its franchise agreement process during its regular meeting Sept. 16 with an informative presentation by the city’s attorney, Nann Winter of Stelzner, Winter, Warburton, Flores, Sanchez & Dawes in Albuquerque. Winter explained a franchise agreement is really a rental agreement by which the local government allows a utility to occupy public rights of way, usually at a price and with rules. The city’s agreement with the co-op, originally made in the 1970s, has lapsed. The existing agreement continues on a month-to-month basis as long as both entities continue honoring it.