SANTA FE — Valerie Espinoza, newly elected to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, began her term Thursday by suggesting that the agency's leaders hold a closed meeting after every public session.

Her idea, offered at a public meeting, brought an immediate rebuke from a member of the League of Women Voters and a later one from the PRC's chairman.

Espinoza, a Democrat and former Santa Fe County clerk, later said she misspoke because she did not understand the term "executive session."

"I may have misrepresented what I meant. I'm not trying to be secretive," she said in an interview.

She said she was trying to advocate for "retreats" or workshops in which PRC executives could have frank discussions that would prepare them for binding votes at their regular public meetings. Espinoza said these workshops, if held, should be open to the public.

"I'm in favor of transparency," she said. Then, admitting she had gotten off to a disappointing start in a new job, she said: "People tell me I talk too much."

A member of the League of Women Voters had challenged Espinoza's idea of closed meetings without a legally permissible reason, such as discussion of a personnel matter.

Commission Chairman Patrick Lyons, R-Clovis, said afterward he was embarrassed by any notion that the PRC would operate in secret.

"You can't just have a closed working session. I would never go along with that," he said.

But for Lyons, the bigger issue of the day was his campaign to hold onto the PRC chairmanship in the face of two challengers, Commissioners Theresa Becenti-Aguilar and Ben Hall. After some debate, the decision was postponed to next week.

Becenti-Aguilar, a Democrat from the Navajo Nation who represents northwest New Mexico, had a chance to unseat Lyons on Thursday, but her campaign fizzled.

Newly elected Commissioner Karen L. Montoya, D-Albuquerque, began the meeting by nominating Becenti-Aguilar for chairwoman and Espinoza for vice chairwoman.

Hall, R-Ruidoso, then moved to table the election until Tuesday. This led to 12 minutes of wrangling over whether Robert's Rules of Order allowed for further discussion of Becenti-Aguilar's nomination.

Becenti-Aguilar called for a ruling from the PRC's lawyers, rather than Lyons.

In the end, Hall's move to delay electing a chairman carried 3-2. Montoya and Becenti-Aguilar opposed it.

Lyons, a former state senator and former state land commissioner, said he is the best-qualified member to chair the commission and advocate for its budget before the Legislature.

"Nobody else even knows the rules. You saw that," he said in an interview.

Lyons said Montoya had injected partisan politics into the PRC by teaming with Becenti-Aguilar beforehand in hopes of giving Democrats control of the agency's leadership.

He said the PRC should be focused on serving utility customers by ensuring that rate-making procedures are fair.

"We're going to go downhill if there's partisan politics," Lyons said.

But politics are part of the PRC. Commissioners are elected as nominees of a political party.

Hall said after the meeting that he would never support Becenti-Aguilar and that Lyons had had his run as chairman for the last two years.

"I'm of the opinion that nobody should be chairman forever," Hall said.

Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at msimonich@tnmnp.com or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com