The scandal that enveloped former Secretary of State Dianna Duran did not tarnish the reputation of her chief of staff, Ken Ortiz, who emerged Thursday as the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission’s choice for a similar executive position.
Commission members voted 3-1 to offer their chief-of-staff job to Ortiz. Negotiations come next for Ortiz and the commission over a job that could pay him as much as $130,000 a year. Ortiz makes $103,000 a year at the Secretary of State’s Office.
Ortiz, 46, said in an interview that he is waiting for a formal offer letter from the commission before any talks begin about salary, benefits and workplace responsibilities.
“But I’m very, very excited by the possible opportunity of working for the Public Regulation Commission and for the five commissioners,” he said.
Commissioner Valerie Espinoza, D-Santa Fe, said she was happy to support Ortiz for the job. Two fellow Democrats on the commission, Karen Montoya of Albuquerque and Sandy Jones of Williamsburg, also voted to offer him the appointment. The commission’s fourth Democrat, Lynda Lovejoy of Crownpoint, did not attend the meeting at which the job offer was decided.
A spirited dissent against Ortiz came from Republican Commissioner Patrick Lyons of the Clovis area. Lyons loudly said “no” in a roll-call vote on offering the job to Ortiz.
In an interview, Lyons said he did not support Ortiz for a variety of reasons, including the fact that he was Duran’s chief of staff for more than four years, during which Duran broke the law. She pleaded guilty last month to six criminal charges, including two felonies for embezzlement of campaign donations. Lyons said Duran’s case also reflected on Ortiz’s abilities.
“I don’t think he’s strong enough to tell five commissioners they’re doing something wrong,” Lyons said.
Lyons also said Ortiz did not interview nearly as well as some of the other five finalists. Lyons wanted to offer the job of chief of staff to Robert W. Parker, an attorney and former member of the Public Regulation Commission’s legal department.
“He knows the organization. He’s personable. He’s smart. Parker’s the one I wanted to bring in,” Lyons said.
Ortiz, a registered Democrat, has deep experience in state government, and he’s been hired for executive jobs by powerful politicians of both parties.
Republican Duran hired Ortiz as her chief of staff after she took office in 2011. Before that, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson selected Ortiz as Cabinet secretary of the Department of Workforce Solutions (formerly the Labor Department) during the throes of the Great Recession. Claims and phone calls to the department had spiked with unemployment claims. Richardson described Ortiz as the manager who could handle the heavy workload and meet the public’s needs.
Also during Richardson’s administration, Ortiz served as director of the Motor Vehicle Division. State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, said Ortiz did an excellent job in improving service in that agency, which had been widely criticized for inefficiency.
Ortiz has smooth relationships with many politicians, who regard him as congenial and a good administrator. Lyons, one of Ortiz’s few on-the record critics, said he fears the commission will pay too much to get Ortiz.
The Public Regulation Commission’s former chief of staff, Vince Martinez, made $90,000 a year. Martinez resigned after turning over records to The New Mexican that he subsequently said were confidential, prompting the commission to sue the newspaper. It soon withdrew the lawsuit, but Martinez was damaged by the episode.
Lyons said the commission has attorneys who are underpaid, and he is concerned that Ortiz will command a salary high enough to prevent others from getting deserved raises.
Ortiz initially did not apply for the commission’s chief-of-staff job because it was listed with a top scale of $90,000 — $13,000 less than he makes at the Secretary of State’s Office. But after the commission again advertised the position and increased the salary cap to $130,000, Ortiz sought the appointment.
Lyons said he considered the additional advertising a waste of $9,000. He also said he opposes a salary of $130,000 at an agency with just 155 employees. About 17 percent of the jobs at the commission are unfilled.
In a separate decision Thursday, the commissioners voted 4-0 to offer the job of Utility Division director to Bruno Carrara, the chief of the commission’s Electrical Engineering Bureau.
Though Carrara has solid support from the commissioners, he has been involved in a controversy over his financial interests in a publicly regulated utility.
He owned 300 shares of stock in Public Service Company of New Mexico. Under state law, commissioners and employees of the commission are barred from having a financial interest in companies they regulate. Carrara sold his stock after a complaint about him was aired during a public meeting.
Along with Carrara, the commission’s former utility director, Dwight Lamberson, and chief of the Accounting Bureau, Charles Gunter, also worked for and receive pensions from PNM. This led critics, such as the advocacy group New Energy Economy, to say the commission and its staff have a cozy and inappropriate relationship with the state’s largest utility company.
New Mexican staff writer Staci Matlock contributed to this story.