A bill spearheaded by State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, to curb conflicts of interest within the Agua Special Utility District board of directors has been sent to Gov. Greg Abbot’s desk. If it becomes law it will create a dilemma for two members of the La Joya ISD board of trustees.
Hinojosa’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Saenz, said Wednesday Gov. Greg Abbott has 20 days from the bill’s unanimous passage in the Texas House of Representatives last Saturday to either sign the bill, veto it or let it pass by default by taking no action.
“I don’t want to say he is absolutely going to sign it because it could just be filed without his signature,” Saenz said, adding with unanimous passage in the House it is not expected the governor will veto it.
The district provides water service to more than 15,000 residents in the cities of Palmview, Peñitas and Sullivan City and portions of Mission and La Joya and rural portions of western Hidalgo County.
The bill was opposed by the cities of La Joya, Peñitas, Sullivan City and the La Joya school board, which passed resolutions opposing the bill.
The cities of Palmview, Mission and the Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court passed resolutions supporting of the bill.
The bill states that if an Agua SUD board director is an employee of another taxing entity within the district, the board may not hire an elected official of that taxing agency to work within the utility district.
Of the seven directors on the Agua SUD board, four are employees of the La Joya Independent School District.
That creates a dilemma for La Joya ISD board president, Oscar “Coach” Salinas and school board member, Armin Garza, both of whom are employed with the utility district. If the bill takes effect it means three options for all involved, said Saenz. She explained one option would be for the four members of the Agua SUD board of directors who work for the school district to resign their positions on the board, or Salinas and Garza could resign their positions on the school board or the third option is for Salinas and Garza to quit their jobs with the water district on September 1 when the bill takes effect.
Contacted Wednesday both Salinas and Garza said they would choose to quit their jobs with Agua SUD than give up their positions on the La Joya ISD school board.
“I’m not going to resign from the school board,” Salinas said Wednesday. “I am going to serve the people that elected me.”
“That’s always an option but I’m fortunate enough that I’m very well educated and I feel I can find employment,” Garza said when asked if he would resign from the school board. Garza is a project manager for the water district, he said.
Both Salinas and Garza were critical of Hinojosa for allowing the House to make last minute changes to the bill that eliminated their option to finish out their current four-year terms on the school board before having to decide between their jobs or their elected positions. Both men were elected in November to the school board.
Salinas called the action a political move in an attempt to dilute the coalition of elected officials in western Hidalgo County who belong to the Team L1iberty political group.
“Of course I love my work at Agua,” Salinas said of his position the past two years as the utility’s community outreach director. “But they ain’t going to stop us from keep on going forward.”
Neither Salinas or Garza could say exactly what their future employment plans would be if the law takes effect.
“It’s not something I’ve looked into because as I said this caught me by surprise,” Garza said, referring to the last minute change in the bill’s language.
“Something good always comes from something bad that happens,” Salinas said. “When one door closes another one opens.”
Two other bills Hinojosa introduced concerning special utility districts never made their way out of committees.
S.B. 1423 would have given the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality greater authority over water districts including giving the commission authority to question the qualifications of utility board members, ordering audits and ordering utilities into receivership should they fail to follow a court order. The bill was sent on March 16 to the Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs Committee but never made it out of committee, per the state legislature’s online bill tracking site.
S.B. 1175 would have given residents served by a utility district greater leeway to have the district’s dissolved and brought under management of other local governmental entities should a majority of county commissioners decide it would be in the best interest of their constituents or if 15 percent of the electorate within the district sign petitions requesting a referendum vote on the dissolution of the utility district. The bill was referred to the Intergovernmental Relations Committee on March 9 but never made it out of committee.
Saenz confirmed both bills “died” in their respective committees but neither Hinojosa nor the chairpersons of the respective committees responded to requests for comment.
Editor Joe Hinton contributed to this report.