After negotiations, the Agua Special Utility District Board of Directors agreed on a $100,000 salary for its new CEO, Julio Cerda, former Mission city manager.
Also at a special meeting last week, the board agreed on a $55,000 salary for Oscar “Coach” Salinas, who will be the district’s new community outreach coordinator.
When this year’s budget was approved, it included a position for an assistant to General Manager Frank Flores as well as the outreach position, both budgeted at $50,000. However, because they weren’t filled during the first five months of the year, Board President Ricardo Ochoa, said there is enough savings to cover both Cerda’s and Salinas’ salaries for the rest of the year.
During public comment, former board president Mario Chapa questioned the legality of hiring someone to oversee Flores. He said he plans to talk to attorneys with the Texas Water Development Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I think you’re making a mistake,” Chapa said. “I have nothing against the people that you interviewed … but the contract that I signed with Mr. Flores said that he was in fact responsible for all the personnel here. I feel that you guys are rushing this, and I’m not sure why.”
Ochoa said every decision the board has made was cleared through the board’s attorneys. And the board’s attorney, Matt Beatty, later said Flores’ contract included an obligation to hire and fire. That’s not a right, he said.
Later in the meeting, Beatty said Flores, too, had expressed concern about the two positions. Beatty said Flores’ concerns stemmed from the fact that Cerda is a consultant with the city of Peñitas and has done work for the Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 6, and Salinas is a La Joya Independent School District board trustee. Four Agua SUD board members are employees of La Joya ISD, and Beatty pointed out that’s a quorum.
“I think it’s something that the board needs to think about and consider,” Beatty said.
Beatty said Cerda’s firm, South Texas Infrastructure, is the engineer of record for two projects in Peñitas, the sewer project and another highway project.
“But he hasn’t been hired or asked to do any work that directly affects Agua SUD in any material way,” Beatty said, adding that he reviewed the Local Government Code and Agua SUD’s bylaws and determined there weren’t any issues with Cerda’s employment.
Cerda told Beatty he would abstain from any discussions having to do with the city of Peñitas obtaining a certificate of convenience and necessity to take over its owner water operations.
“Can you get that in writing, sir?” Flores asked.
Beatty said from a legal standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with getting it in writing, but Ochoa pointed out both Cerda and Salinas would be at-will employees, meaning they can be fired at any time without a payout if they do anything inappropriate.
“Actually we have it in writing,” Flores said. “It’ll be in the minutes, and it’ll be recorded audio and video that Mr. Beatty had already talked to (Cerda) and he’s recusing himself from anything having to do with our water contract and anything having to do with our CCN issues, regardless of what city it is.”
“I think the statement made may be a little broad,” Beatty responded. “We’re talking about hypotheticals that … just to say that he would recuse himself from anything to do with Agua SUD is an inaccurate reflection of the conversation I had with Mr. Cerda today.”
When it comes to Salinas, Flores said the school board trustee would report directly to the water district’s board, which contains four school district employees. Flores questioned what would happen if Salinas came to the Agua SUD board with a recommendation and the board had to decide whether to vote for it or against it. Salinas is essentially, Flores said, their boss.
He read from the education code, which states that the school board decides to accept or reject a superintendent’s recommendation regarding personnel.
“Yes, the superintendent is the chief executive officer, but ultimately the board decides who gets hired and who gets fired,” Flores said, later adding, “Let’s look into it a little bit deeper. I don’t think Agua SUD is on fire now, crashing and burning. We’ve already made the decision to hire an excellent person for the executive director position.”
Agua SUD Director Oscar Gonzalez, who works for La Joya ISD, said he doesn’t feel that way and requested an apology from Flores.
Cesar Rodriguez said what Flores described is called defamation of character, “and me, personally, I’ve got my ethics.
“Do you know what ethics are?” Rodriguez asked Flores.
“I’m saying there’s something there,” Flores responded. “You are an employee of La Joya ISD, and this is one of your bosses.”
At that point, Ochoa broke in and cited his experience as an assistant superintendent with the Sharyland school district.
“One board member is nobody,” Ochoa said. “You have to have the majority of the board to hire or fire anybody.”