Agua SUD, La Joya ISD, Peñitas, respond to bill seeking to curb conflict of interest

Five weeks after a senate bill was filed seeking to limit who can work for the Agua Special Utility District, three local entities affected by the proposed legislation have almost simultaneously passed resolutions against it.

 

Around mid-day Monday the Agua SUD board of directors, the La Joya School Board and the Peñitas City Council each passed resolutions in opposition to Senate Bill 814.

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Filed Feb. 10 by State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, if passed the proposed legislation would prevent Agua SUD from employing elected officials who oversee the schools and cities where utility board members work. Blood relatives in the third degree of an elected official within the city and school district would also be prevented from being hired by Agua SUD, if the bill passes.

 

Both the Agua SUD and La Joya School Boards held special noon meetings Monday at which resolutions were passed against the proposed legislation. The Peñitas City Council unanimously approved its resolution during a special meeting a half hour later.

 

During Monday’s meeting,  Agua SUD Executive Director Oscar Cancino warned the board that the bill is so far-reaching it could negatively impact the district, which provides water service to 15,000 residents in western Hidalgo County.

 

“It would make us endure some additional cost in the sense that we’d have to hire and train new employees who aren’t from the area,” Cancino said. “It’s a tight-knit community where many share the similarities of the district of living here and people who want to seek office will have to look closely at their relatives to see if they can hold office.”

 

Agua SUD Board President Rogelio “Roger” Hernandez III, Secretary Lloyd Loya, Treasurer Esequiel “Zeke” Ortiz Jr. and Director Cesar Rodriguez Jr. are current employees of the La Joya school district.

 

La Joya ISD trustees Oscar “Coach” Salinas and Armin Garza are both employed with the utility district as outreach coordinator and billing supervisor, respectively. If the bill passes it is not immediately clear how the pair would be affected.

 

Salinas serves as the school board president. As of press time requests for comment from him went unanswered. However, contacted Wednesday, Garza said he opposes the proposed legislation.

 

“It’s not just me and Coach who will be affected,” Garza said. “It affects quite a few people and it has consequences people may not be aware of. The way it reads people could be affected with job loss. It may be unconstitutional.”

 

The Agua SUD board voted 4 to 1 in passing a resolution to oppose the bill with Board Vice President Homer Tijerina voting against it.

 

The resolution had not been made public as of press time Wednesday, but Tijerina said it gives full authority to Cancino to move forward as he sees fit.

 

“It basically gives him the right to respond to any legislative bills without going through the board first, which I didn’t agree with,” Tijerina said after the meeting. “I think it’s a good bill to prevent any conflict of interest within our district so I don’t see how our executive director, not going through the board first in any action, will be helpful.”

 

Tijerina added that he believes Hinojosa’s bill will prevent Agua SUD from being placed in receivership like its predecessor the La Joya Water Supply Corporation. According to previous reports, the La Joya Water Supply Corporation was dissolved in 2008 after its receivership amid claims of corruption and mismanagement leading to the creation of Agua SUD.

 

Board member Ricardo Ochoa was not able to attend the meeting but in a telephone interview Wednesday, he echoed Tijerina’s comments about preventing a conflict of interest, adding that he would’ve also voted against the resolution.

 

“We have four people working under the La Joya school district on our board,” Ochoa said, referring to the four Agua SUD board members who are employed by La Joya ISD. “And their employees are basically their bosses with the [school] district because they serve as school board members,” Ochoa said. “That’s a big conflict of interest because it’s as if the school district has a hand in the utility district.”

 

Sen. Hinojosa could not be reached for comment. In a report published last month when the bill was initially filed, he said the bill was the result of several of his constituents contacting his office to express disapproval of Agua SUD board members hiring La Joya school board members as employees.

 

Though the La Joya ISD board passed the resolution, trustees Garza and Salinas abstained from voting, according to Garza, but the remaining board members voted unanimously to support  Agua SUD’s resolution as did the Peñitas city council.

 

A copy of Peñitas’ resolution states the city opposes “any limitations or restrictions regarding arbitrary circumstances dictated by where an individual has been elected into public office by a majority of the citizens they represent…these arbitrary restrictions may limit the hiring of qualified employees at the Agua Special Utility District.”

 

City manager Omar Romero declined to comment, deferring all questions to Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez who stated the city supports the Agua board but would not elaborate further, adding he was unaware the La Joya school board was meeting and voting on the same day.

 

Per the state’s legislative web site the last activity provided about the proposed legislation was in February when the bill had been referred to the Senate’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee. If passed as written, the bill would go into effect Sept. 1.

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