Group Raises Concerns Over Jemez Election Oversight

From the 2019 Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative Elections series
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The president of Northern New Mexicans Protecting Land, Water and Rights, Inc. sent a certified letter to the members of the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative Board of Trustees with four requests related to the upcoming District 4, 5 and 6 elections.

Northern New Mexicans Protecting President Beverly Duran-Cash mailed the letter June 12 and wrote that the integrity of the election and the confidence of the member-owners are of “critical importance.”

“Unfortunately, our Cooperative has a history of contested elections and questionable procedures that have eroded the members’ confidence in our elections,” she wrote. “For example, (the Co-op) has been plagued by past allegations of voter intimidation, improper campaign procedures, violations of the bylaws and biased recounts.”

In a response to the letter Tuesday evening to Duran-Cash and all the candidates, Co-op interim general manager Andrew Chávez wrote that the Co-op “vehemently disagrees” that the member-owners do not have confidence in the election process and that a “vast majority” of the about 29,000 members trust the process and outcome.

“The fact that some members may have raised questions in the past, however, does not result in these elections having been ‘plagued’ by voter intimidation, improper campaign procedures, violations of the Co-op’s bylaws or biased recounts,” he wrote.

Board President and District 5 Trustee Nick Naranjo said the election will be “conducted as it should by the bylaws.”

“We are paying a private entity to run the election,” he said.

Chávez signed the response, however, Naranjo said prior to its release that Co-op contract attorney Charles Garcia, with Cuddy & McCarthy, LLP, was writing the draft.

Chávez said during the May 25 Board of Trustees meeting that the Co-op hired Rio Rancho-based company Automated Election Services to conduct the election.

In past years, the Co-op has paid Rio Arriba County to conduct them.

“We went with them because, so there wouldn’t be any complaints about the County and us,” Naranjo said.

There is overlap between the County and the Co-op: Marquez is the deputy County manager and the County is also involved in the Co-op’s plan to bring a 2.5 megawatt solar array to Alcalde.

Duran-Cash wrote that members of the group will be “educating (member-owners) of their rights, carefully monitoring the elections, watching for discrepancies or unfair procedures, documenting any problems, identifying (member-owners) who are not allowed to vote and remaining vigilant in case any post-election is necessary.”

Oversight requested

The group is asking the Co-op to support a fair election process in four ways:

The letter states Co-op member-owners plan to observe the District 4 election June 21 at the Co-op’s Hernandez office, as well as the District 5 election June 24 at Española Valley High School.

“We request that you instruct all (Co-op) employees involved with the election to respect the rights of our observers, and trust that you will not interfere with our efforts,” Duran-Cash wrote.

The group is also requesting that Co-op officials save all election materials for at least 60 days after the election.

“Despite a history of close elections, (the Co-op) has not saved ballots and related documents,” she wrote.

Chávez wrote in his reply that there is no provision in the Co-op bylaws for recounts.

The third request is for members of the Election Committee, District 1 Trustee Dolores McCoy, District 3 Trustee Johnny Jaramillo and Trustee-at-Large John Tapia, to provide a description “of the procedures that will be put in place to protect the integrity of the election.”

“We ask that these procedures include how eligible voters will be identified as well as how many votes a qualified member can cast when owning a meter in two different districts in the election,” the letter states.

Although Naranjo named Tapia as a member of the Election Committee at the Co-op’s April Board meeting, he was not included on the list of Committee members in Chávez’s reply.

The letter states District 4 Trustee and incumbent candidate Lucas Cordova will be the chair for the District 5 election between incumbent Victor Salazar and challenger Stanley Crawford.

District 3 Trustee Johnny Jaramillo will be the chair for the District 4 election between Cordova and challenger Patrick Herrera. McCoy will be the chair for the District 6 election, in which incumbent Bruce Duran is running unopposed.

In his reply, Chávez wrote that some of the statements in the letter “present grave concern” to the Co-op.

“It is not the role for any (Co-op member-owner), nor of (Northern New Mexicans Protecting), to make any determinations with regard to the elections, nor to interfere or harass any Co-op member-owner attempting to vote during the election, nor to make determinations as to who is ‘not allowed to vote,’” he wrote.

The last request is for Co-op officials to provide the contact information for someone to speak to if any concerns arise during the three elections.

Secretary of State meeting

Co-op member-owners met with the New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver June 10 to discuss the election.

“The Secretary of State’s Office does not have jurisdiction over Jemez Co-op’s election, but (Toulouse Oliver) met with (member-owners) at their request as a courtesy and shared her expertise about the appropriate conduct of election,” Secretary of State Communications Director Alex Curtas wrote in a Monday email.

“We just wanted to be proactive to make sure that the elections were done above board,” Co-op member-owner Heather Nordquist, who attended the meeting, said.

Nordquist said she invited Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, to the meeting because of rural electric cooperative-related legislation she sponsored during this year’s Legislation Session.

Armstrong said she sent a House Republican staff member in her place because she was unavailable.

Armstrong sponsored House Bill 300, signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, which allows member-owners of any of the state’s rural electric cooperatives to change their bylaws to allow proxy and mail-in voting.

Former Co-op general manager Donna Montoya-Trujillo attended the Jan. 31 Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee meeting to discuss the Bill.

She said she neither supported or opposed it, but felt like no one from the Co-op was given the opportunity to provide feedback on the Bill before it was introduced.

Although Armstrong does not represent the County, she said the member-owners just want the election ran correctly.

“I felt like it was important because they really felt like they weren’t being heard and co-ops are kind of fraught because no one really regulates them once they are made,” Armstrong said.

The Co-op’s bylaws outline the nomination and election process for trustees.

The Co-op is required to notify member-owners of an election 45 to 60 days prior to the election date. Candidates are required to file a Declaration of Candidacy no more than 40 and no less than 30 days before the election, along with a petition signed by at least 30 to 75 member-owners, depending on the size of the district.

The Board president is required to appoint members to an Election Committee, the chairperson of which will certify voter registration, tally the votes cast and certify the election results.

Polls are required to be open for 12 hours, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on election day.

If there is a tie, candidates must draw lots to declare a winner.

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