What started as a meeting to schedule dates for deliberations in the proposed Avangrid-PNM merger turned into a rebuke by a state Public Regulation Commission hearing examiner.
Ashley Schannauer ordered Avangrid, a Connecticut-based utility company, to disclose information about service problems and penalties its subsidiaries have faced on the East Coast, adding Avangrid has failed to be forthcoming about those problems and penalties.
He issued a written order for the Public Service Company of New Mexico and Avangrid to file more information by May 18. Interested parties must respond by May 25 and the status conference that was to be held Tuesday was reset for May 28.
A hearing examiner is a form of judge employed by the Public Regulation Commission to offer recommendations. The commission is largely called upon to consider whether such a merger provides a net benefit to customers and the public.
Avangrid attorney Brian Haverly of Albuquerque at one point Tuesday morning told Schannauer he was confident there would be a satisfactory outcome.
"I am sure we will work through this," Haverly said. "And I have nothing to hide about it."
But Schannauer wasted no time during the meeting in airing his dismay over the thin amount of disclosure offered by Avangrid. He cited for the Zoom meeting of about 25 attorneys representing clients with interest in the case that he had come across a total of $25 million in penalties for poor service against Avangrid subsidiaries over a 16-month period.
That includes a $2.1 million fine issued against a subsidiary over the past several days for inadequate service in Connecticut, Schannauer said.
"Am I the only one who's troubled by this?" the hearing examiner asked during the meeting.
Other attorneys then layered their own criticisms atop Schannauer's.
Peter Gould, a Santa Fe attorney representing New Mexico Affordable Reliable Energy Alliance, said he has had trouble working with Avangrid "because they do not seem to understand playing by the rules."
Gould said an out-of-state attorney working for Avangrid hasn't received the required approval to participate in a case in New Mexico. And he said the merger applicants haven't hesitated to "go behind our backs to our clients" to try to get them to sign onto an agreement.
He also asked if Avangrid is "ready and able to provide the type of service that PNM has provided" for decades.
Numerous interested parties already have signed a tentative agreement with Avangrid and PNM, including the state Attorney General's Office, which said the proposal seemed sound. But others, including the city of Albuquerque and the Sierra Club, have not.
Jeff Albright, an Albuquerque attorney representing Bernalillo County, said dealing with Avangrid is perplexing. For instance, Iberdrola of Spain owns more than 80 percent of Avangrid but is not listed as an applicant on the proposal, he said.
Albright said there are so many affiliates and subsidiaries associated with the organization that it's "sometimes difficult to unravel what's going on."
"It's a confusing landscape," he said. "I won't say it's by intent, but it's very convoluted."
Mariel Nanasi, attorney for New Energy Economy of Santa Fe, said Avangrid has given minimal or no answer to many of the questions posed by her group during the discovery process. Nanasi said she would, if necessary, file a "motion to compel" Avangrid to respond and would ask the company to pay for attorney fees incurred in that process.
Haverly told Schannauer that Avangrid would be happy to address the hearing examiner's concerns "in any way in which you would like us to."
Schannauer said he wanted written responses. Later in the day, his written order called the companies' silence on the Avangrid subsidiaries' service problems "troubling."
The lack of openness is "relevant to the credibility of their witnesses' testimony and the transparency by which Avangrid and PNM would conduct their business in New Mexico if the merger is approved," he wrote.
He also expected the results of management audits conducted in Connecticut and Maine on Avangrid or subsidiaries to be included in the filings.
And Schannauer referred to a commission staff findings about one of the Avangrid subsidiaries, Central Maine Power. A J.D. Power customer satisfaction study in 2020 ranked 128 investor-owned electric utilities. Central Maine Power, Schannauer said, finished last.