Agua Special Utility District’s Board of Directors unanimously voted last week to hire a top executive, essentially demoting District Manager Frank Flores, who was brought on board in 2005 when La Joya Water Supply Corporation was brought under receivership.
“In my opinion, Frank is very knowledgeable,” said Board Chairman Ricardo Ochoa after the meeting. “He took over when he had no board, but we changed. We’re moving, we’re growing, and we have a lot of complaints that sometimes Frank is not very service oriented. It’s a ‘My way or highway type of deal.’”
“I expected that they would hire somebody to be over me because this place is turning back into La Joya Water Supply Corporation real quick,” Flores said after the meeting.
In 2005, Pablo Vela Jr., of Long Chilton, was hired as the receiver after the Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the La Joya Water Supply Corporation, pointing to inconsistent customer billing and debt collection fraud. Vela hired Flores, who had retired from the Mission Water system, to manage the district.
After an executive session held so the board’s attorney could discuss potential legal issues with the move, Rigo Lopez, who represents the Peñitas area, made the motion, citing communication issues with Flores. The top executive, Lopez said, would report to the board and Flores would report to the top executive.
“I’ve been here four years, and it’s not a knock on Frank, but I have to agree with Mr. Lopez in a way,” said Ramon Segovia, board member and Palmview city manager. “There’s been some tension over the situations that have gone on in the past to where the board has some hesitation turning to Frank, and I think we have a duty to our constituents to feel like we’re doing the right thing.”
Flores he disagreed with the board’s comments, his door is always open and he’s been there for everyone.
“I get phone calls from the board, you know? ‘Go turn this guy’s water on.’ Well, he hasn’t paid his bill. Why would I turn his water on?” Flores said.
Segovia said it isn’t just the board. People in the community have reached out to various board members because they don’t feel comfortable coming to Flores, Segovia said.
“They’re scared, and they reach out to us. A lot of times we can’t do anything,” Segovia said. “I’m not saying do anything illegal or outside the box. It’s just people feel like they need somebody to listen to them a lot of times, and that’s why I feel people have come to us.
“Maybe we don’t know the whole story, but in my job, when people come in, I’ll listen to them. I’ll try to do what I can to help them.”
“So this person is going to direct staff?” Flores asked.
“He’s going to be top executive,” Lopez replied.
“How can he be top executive, sir, if I’m the top executive?” Flores asked.
After the meeting, Flores said his contract with Agua SUD makes him the chief executive officer with the ability to hire, fire and set compensation. A part of the reason the board wants a new top executive, Flores alleged, is because he often refuses when board members call him to turn on water for their friends.
When an audit was conducted in 2005, Flores said it found 450 water meters in the ground that nobody knew about and even more meters were not being taken care of as far as up-to-date payments.
“It’s a sad situation. I don’t perceive that I’ll be here much longer, but first I’ve got to get a lawyer because it is in breach of contract,” Flores said.
When Flores was hired, there was no board, and Ochoa said that’s a part of the problem. Last year, the board gave Flores a directive to run hiring and firing decisions past it before making any final decisions, Ochoa said.
“He hired and fired and did everything, so he kind of got used to that situation,” Ochoa said. “If you were working for Agua, he could just get rid of you. We had no choice in it. Why would I want to be a board member where I could get sued by you when I didn’t have a say in it?”
Over the past few years, board members have verbally given Flores feedback on his performance, Ochoa said, and they’d talked about putting together a written instrument for evaluation, but it never materialized.
Ochoa said another part of the reasoning behind the decision is the idea that if something happens to Flores, Agua SUD doesn’t have anyone ready to take over.
The position now slated for the top executive originally was budgeted as an assistant for Flores. The move will not affect his pay. The board also voted to seek applicants for a community outreach position, which also was budgeted this year.
The board is seeking applicants for the position. Ochoa said the executive should understand the people in the Rio Grande Valley.