Public Utility Advisory Board has seats open, or does it?

by Kathleen Sloan | June 14, 2020
5 min read
The Public Utility Advisory Board has three seats with terms expiring, but will the City Commission open up those seats or let current members serve again?

The PUAB is supposed to be a citizen advisory board meant to expend time and energy on plumbing the people’s will and opinion on utility issues. It is also supposed to do research on utility issues before making an informed recommendation to the City Commission.

The current PUAB is comprised of three ex-city employees, two of which headed the city-owned electric utility. Rather than gathering and informing the City Commission of the people’s will, the PUAB has been in lock-step with City staff, amplifying their recommendations instead of acting as a check and balance on city staff.

For example, the PUAB took information that City staff gave them and did no independent research on the $1-million purchase of radio-frequency-operated smart meters that will be installed for electric utility customers.

Without researching radiation dangers, fire liability or cost benefit for the people, the board recommended the purchase and ignored public comment, the majority of which was intensely opposed to the purchase.

The PUAB will meet Monday, June 15, at 5:30 p.m. The only items on the agenda concern board appointments and a board-member resignation.

Ed Williams, whose term expires this month, has resigned. He once headed the electric utility.

Board members Ron Pacourek and Jeff Dornbusch’s terms are also set to expire this month. Neither was employed by the city.

Gil Avelar, who also used to head the electric utility, is seated until June 2021.

Don Armijo, who used to head the public works department, is also seated until June 2021.

It’s nearly certain that Pacourek and Dornbusch will serve again.

Instead of advertising and making the public aware positions are opening up on citizen advisory boards, the City fills them behind closed doors and asks the City Commission to rubberstamp the appointments.

In the packet for the PUAB meeting, City Clerk Angela Torres’ email is included. She asks Williams, Pacourek and Dornbusch if they want to serve again, short-circuiting any citizen outreach to fill their seats with other community members.

Williams said he was resigning and Pacourek and Dornbusch said they want to serve again, essentially being allowed to self-appoint.

And although all the City’s citizen advisory boards serve as subcommittees in service to the City Commission, City Manager Morris Madrid told City Commissioners at the May 13 meeting the advisory boards themselves should come up with member replacements.

Madrid’s opinion on how to fill board positions is backed by Mayor Sandra Whitehead. When Mayor Pro-Tem Brendan Tolley and City Commissioners Randall Aragon and Amanda Forrister asked to see advisory-board applications during the May 13 meeting, Whitehead said advisory boards handle their own applications.

At the May 27 meeting the same three board members pushed back a little, insisting two of three open seats on the Sierra Vista Hospital Governing Board be advertised by the City. They did not push back on Peggy “Cookie” Johnson serving again on the Governing Board, simply because she requested to remain.

The past City Commission also sought to repress participation in citizen advisory boards.

Months ago, during public comment, Ariel Dougherty said the City makes little effort to create diverse citizen advisory boards, pointing particularly to the PUAB as male dominated.

Then-City Commissioner George Szigeti told Dougherty women simply did not apply, ignoring the self-appointing that goes on, aided by City staff.

Szigeti benefited from the method of selection. He was allowed to serve on the PUAB for seven years by simply stating he wanted to serve again.

He also supported City Manager Morris Madrid’s contention that the Planning and Zoning Commission wasn’t convened for seven years for lack of applicants, when several were on file.

However, had Szigeti investigated he would have found that it was the City Commission’s wish to kill the P&Z Commission. It refused to fill P&Z seats, effectively suppressing public participation in and knowledge of land-use issues.

Keeping as many of the same people on the PUAB to amplify City staff’s wishes will likely remain the continued practice because it suppresses unrest.

Recently the PUAB backed the City staff’s desire for a 50-percent increase in water rates and then the City Commission approved the massive hike, citing their recommendations as a primary basis for their decision.

The PUAB has also recently backed the City staff’s desire to suppress solar-energy use by citizens.

Dougherty has been spearheading an effort to change the City’s solar-energy ordinance. The current ordinance limits solar-panel installations to 90 percent of the customer’s electric use in the prior year. The size limitation kills economic-savings incentives usually gained by switching to solar. It also prohibits electric-car usage, since one can’t build a system big enough to charge it economically.

The PUAB has rejected her proposal to make solar more affordable to residents and businesses, emphasizing the City’s need to make a profit on its city-owned electric department.

Ironically, the City tried to save money by using solar energy. It currently has a contract with Sun Solar, which runs a solar farm close to the Sierra County Fair Barn. But the deal was not sufficiently or independently researched. The City pays more per kilowatt hour for its solar energy than it does to Sierra Electric.

This is another instance in which no independent cost-benefit analysis or oversight was done by the PUAB to ensure residents were not taken, not fulfilling the function of a citizen advisory board.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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