BY MARCIE MARTINEZ
Member, Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative
Exorbitant electric bills, some to the tune of $500 a month, rate riders promising to pay millions of dollars on an easement agreement soaked with conflict of interest, career trustees that use the cooperative as a retirement and vacation fund, a trustee-at-large fabricating letters of complaint on another trustee, and on and on. What gives? To really understand the issues plaguing the member owners of the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative (JMEC) perhaps we should take a quick walk down memory lane to its foundation in 1947.
I couldn’t say for certain but I’ve heard tell that the statutes governing rural cooperatives in New Mexico were deliberately loosely designed to avoid much oversight from any public authority such that the trustees hold most, if not all, control. Bylaws must only conform to the statute and while it is possible for the bylaws to be changed by the membership the trustees have set up policy in such a way that it is nearly impossible for the membership to have any real voice, including modification of the bylaws. Rumor has it that the people behind the drafting of the old cooperative statute were also those who would run for the board back then, which does not have term limits, and would hold onto those “lucrative” seats with their cold, dead hands.
So what happens when the trustees do not follow even their own weak bylaws and self-serving policy? You get a rogue cooperative wherein the executive board claims all control and is indignant to its bosses – the member owners who elected them and placed their “trust” in them as fiduciaries of one of our most necessary resources. These issues have always existed but seem to have become much worse since the inception of the “smart meter” along with the stacking of the board with a good ol’ boy ring of political cronies who care more about partying it up in the Jemez than conducting an adequate annual meeting. Not all trustees are in it for themselves and in fact some really are trying to create change, but unfortunately less than half comprise the non-rogue faction.
The election that tipped the scale in the more recent past was that in which I ran against Leo Marquez for District 6 Ward A in 2017 and “lost” by one vote. Problems have existed since day one but have become increasingly worse as the “rogue” trustees seemingly have come to realize the only real oversight is from the members themselves, but the apathy created by the very same bylaws we now wish to change is palpable and indeed our Achilles heel.
JMEC is, by all accounts, the proverbial henhouse being guarded by the proverbial fox. Ownership of our energy via a rural cooperative is an incredible opportunity; imagine the possibilities of renewable and sustainable energy at very low costs if you are the owner of your energy, not to mention the potential of expansion into other utilities. Theoretically we should be living in a utility utopia but instead we are slaves to the trustees that we supposedly elect every four years. Why is this? Let’s break it down and then try to figure out if we might find a solution:
Some of the issues:
- Erratic and inconsistent billing to most of its customer (member/owner) base, some seeing bills as low as $50 a month while many others have seen bills in the $500 range. JMEC’s response to complaints is equally nonsensical, including such things as blaming electric heaters.
- Faulty meters with no communication from JMEC regarding this or intent for replacement.
- Exaggerated use of reimbursement, in some cases trustees have made up to $35,000 in one year despite the existence of caps on vouchers.
- Monthly junkets to Las Vegas and other cities under the pretense of JMEC business.
- Conflicts of interest between trustees and governmental entities as well as private corporations/contracts.
- Executive board holding meetings in private to deliberately exclude the non-rogue trustees.
- Elections are run contrary to the bylaws and policy in favor of the long-running good ol’ boy trustees.
The list is not definitive but gives a good idea of what we, as member owners, are up against. The final bullet point is likely the most detrimental of all, as it ensures ultimate control by the board, which is where my experience comes in. Along with the apathy of the membership and its lack of participation in elections, the board is wholly violating the bylaws and its own policy governing elections. As previously mentioned, at 6:59 PM, the close of the polls at the District 6 election in 2017, my watcher indicated that the final vote tally from the machine was 376 and he did not witness anyone else casting another vote. According to the board I lost by one vote, which would be impossible as the final tally was an even number. I also heard many rumors of a few associates of the rogue faction talking, and sometimes bragging, about voting numerous times. According to policy only one member per household can vote, and if the same person or household owns multiple meters, still only one vote can be cast. This alone is a disparity.
Additionally, during the District 5, Wards A and B, and District 6 elections many people were turned away and incorrectly told they were voting in the wrong district. The District 6 election was quite bizarre to say the least. Under my opponent’s tent were half of the trustees along with many county employees and I was hearing rumors that there was partying and drinking of alcohol under that tent, despite being on Santa Fe County property. This was all but confirmed to me after the election when John Tapia, who had just vacated the seat for which I ran, placed an unwelcomed arm around me apparently to console me on my loss. His eyes were bloodshot and he reeked of alcohol. During the election my supporters were telling me to be careful with “those people” because they were “like vultures”, apparently approaching them well into the prescribed 100 feet from the building, in which no campaigning is allowed. Prior to and on the day of election some of my signs were vandalized and repeatedly removed, as has been customary in many public elections in Rio Arriba County.
After the election I sought certain records, including the machine printouts and voter logs, via official letter to the board and general manager. The response from the Co-op’s attorney was that I was not entitled to the information. In my letter I cited the bylaws and policy regarding the provisions specifically forbidding JMEC employees from having anything to do with elections and yet they were the very people who conducted the entire election. I also informed them of the fact that, as a private non-profit corporation, they were subject to certain IRS regulations and guidelines, including a democratically controlled election process among other issues. All of this fell on deaf ears. Indeed JMEC answers to no one. It is not subject to any public statutes such as the Open Meetings Act, Inspection of Public Records Act, or any voter laws and the only “authority” providing any type of regulation is the Public Regulation Commission, which has very little oversight and only to the extent of the utility itself and when you have friends, or family as it were, in high places, even this authority is arguable.
Most recently several other major issues have surfaced, including a conflict of interest wherein Tapia is employed by or closely affiliated with the company contracted for a proposed solar array and Leo Marquez is the deputy County Manager for Rio Arriba County, which is also affiliated with the solar array project. In the meantime only the executive board has been privy to these discussions and dealings.
One of the most insidious actions, which was supported by trustees that are no longer on the board as well as some current trustees, in the less recent past but which might have been the most detrimental to northern New Mexico in immeasurable ways was the easement agreement made with Ohkay Owingeh. The agreement saddled the members with $11.5 million in fees. Public Regulations Commissioner, Valerie Espinoza, and her cousin through marriage, then general manager Wayne Sowell along with the Ohkay Owingeh governor and trustee, Ron Lovato and then chair Kenneth Borrego, also Espinoza’s cousin, were instrumental in institutionalizing these outrageous agreements. Due to these horrific conflicts of interest a dangerous precedent was set such that the pueblos have been given the ammunition to seek outrageous easement fees in other areas as well, including property access to those non-tribal members within pueblo boundaries, which has been a major issue even in the courts as of late.
The issues do not end here and it would indeed fill the pages of a book to detail all of the problems the members face; however it is plain to see that the main issue is the board itself. It is run like a dictatorship where many of the former and current chairmen, including Nick Naranjo, believe they answer to nobody and can violate policy with reckless abandon with nobody to stop them. John Tapia, as a fired LANL employee and persona non grata to District 6, is a liability to the entire Co-op and yet was effortlessly placed back on the board through the backdoor after the scales were tipped and Leo Marquez won the election. This is a story in and of itself.
Two noteworthy activists, Loyda Martinez and John Gutting, placed themselves on the line several years ago to try to effect change only to be slammed in the Rio Grande Sun and, in Mr. Gutting’s case, to be dragged into Tapia’s lawsuit against LANL simply because he tried to hold his own trustee accountable. This action created a dangerous precedent placing any member owner at risk of legal action for attempting to improve the Co-op.
The tireless efforts of the local organization Northern New Mexico Protecting Land, Water, and Rights (NNM Protects) have also appeared to be futile for the very same reasons. The group has attempted to have bylaws changed by following the prescribed protocol yet the board is ignoring its duty and making this impossible. The only alternative is to rally the members to the annual meeting, which is deliberately held an hour and a half away in the Jemez, deterring most members from attending, let alone enough members to comprise the ten percent required to make a quorum. NNM Protects made a separate attempt at retrieving the records of the District 6 election a few months after my attempt, and was informed that all records were destroyed. The small core of three or four people in the organization have gone above and beyond any purported call of duty to try to foster change and improve our community in this regard. They have approached just about every public authority for help to no avail.
The spherical vision I have cultivated and honed shows me that this was always as it was intended, from the feeble governing statutes to the deliberate creation of apathy in the membership over the years. The rogue trustees have tested the membership to the brink in order to determine what they might get away with and they have realized they can get away with just about anything and therefore will continue using the Co-op as their private vacation and retirement fund and treat the shareholder member owners as mere serfs in the feudal system of rural cooperatives.
As a preliminary matter, it is my belief that candidates for the upcoming elections in June should provide formal notice to JMEC that the bylaws and policy governing elections must be followed. Obviously I’m a bit jaded and apprehensive of assisting any endeavors that require the board to self-regulate but I do believe there are certain actions that could and should be taken in the short-term. In my view it is the members, not any organization acting as an advocate for members, who should facilitate those actions. At this point I see no other solution than a class action lawsuit; however, I am not interested in being the sole representative or in doing all the work on behalf of a 26,000 member Co-op, all of whom have a stake and duty to oversee their employees. I would, however, take the lead if at least a handful of concerned members would make a commitment to assist and see this through. I have an idea and a blueprint for accomplishing the task. I have access to a consultant out-of-state attorney but would need a local attorney preferably who has experience in both class actions and contract law willing to take on the challenge, which would most certainly result in monetary compensation in the end. Anyone interested can contact me directly through the Facebook group, Members/Owners of Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, Inc.
Change happens at the grassroots level and it is time to hold our employees accountable. Things are not getting any better and there is no reason we should expect them to as long as historical patterns exist.