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Chief of Staff Jason Montoya alleges pending PRC reform led the state to place a hold on hiring key positions

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FARMINGTON — The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission’s Chief of Staff Jason Montoya said the state has delayed hiring some key positions at the PRC that could make it hard to comply with requirements in the Energy Transition Act, including completing an electric grid reliability report that is due to the state Legislature by July.

"Without qualified individuals, we just can't get the work done," Montoya told the PRC during a Dec. 4 meeting that can be viewed online at nmprc.state.nm.us.

Montoya said these reclassified positions are needed because the state did not provide funding for nine full-time positions the PRC informed legislators it would need to implement the Energy Transition Act. 

"We didn't get the nine (full-time employees) and now we're being told we can't reclassify the engineer interns that are going to be assigned to work on the ETA, so that puts us down 11, 12, 13 employees in the utility division alone to accept this work load," he said.

Montoya said he received a “disturbing call” the Tuesday before the Thanksgiving holiday from the director of the New Mexico State Personnel Office informing him that requests for hiring the reclassified positions submitted to the State Personnel Office and the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration have been placed on hold. He said that basically places the PRC on a hiring freeze and hinders the ability to restructure the utility division.

Montoya said he asked, "is this a decision or is this a directive you have been given" and the director told him, "it is a decision and I am relaying the message." He alleged the SPO director mentioned the discussions about PRC reform and potential legislation and said, "from the governor's office and the speaker's office, no action will be taken."

While Montoya said the Speaker of the House's office may have been behind the directive, much of the conversation at the PRC focused around the governor.

Governor's office denies imposing hiring freeze

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor's office, said Montoya’s allegations that the governor directed the hiring freeze on the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission are “unequivocally false,” adding that nothing has been frozen.

Commissioner Stephen Fischmann suggested arranging a meeting with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

"If there are plans in the governor's office or legislatively, they should be coming to us and talking about their concerns and we should be coming up with a plan that we can still get our work done while they're going through this process," Fischmann said. "And for whatever reason that has not happened here. And in my mind it can be handled much better. So, I guess my intention is to call the governor's office and see if we do a little dialogue around that instead of just having a draconian stop. There might be a number of different things that we could do."

Commissioner Valerie Espinoza disagreed with the proposal to meet with the governor.

"Right now you are only assuming that it was under her directive," she said. "You don't have anything in writing to say that she called the SPO director and said, 'freeze their money, their positions'...There's an assumption that it came from her because of the reforming initiatives ahead of us in January. So I think it would be a mistake to go over there and bang on her door when it might not even be her."

Commissioner Jefferson Byrd said the commission could meet with the governor to explain its concerns and ask for her support.

PRC Chairwoman Theresa Becenti-Aguilar read out loud portions of emails Montoya sent to the director of the State Personnel Office on Nov. 25 and Dec. 2 following the conversation. In the Dec. 2 email, Montoya asked for an email response confirming and explaining the decision to delay hiring.

The hold on hiring reclassified positions comes as the governor launches a four-day rapid hiring event. A press release for the rapid hiring event, which starts Dec. 11, states “every state agency with vacancies will participate in the event.” However, the PRC is not included on the schedule for the rapid hiring event.

“We are hiring for executive branch agencies under our control,” Stelnicki said. “The PRC is not part of the rapid-hire event because we do not hire for them.”

In addition, the PRC is requesting a significant budget increase to cover the cost of hiring new employees. Montoya told lawmakers during a Legislative Finance Committee meeting on Nov. 21 that the PRC implemented a critical hiring plan earlier this year and has a 18.6% vacancy rate. He said the PRC hoped to reduce that to less than 10% by the end of this calendar year and the ultimate goal is a 5% vacancy rate.

SPO Director Pamela Coleman did not respond to requests for comment by deadline Dec. 5.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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