Rather than giving up their leadership positions on the La Joya ISD School Board of Trustees, two high-profile employees with the utility that provides water to much of western Hidalgo County have quit their jobs. But the state senator who sponsored the bill that forced the decision said the utility should disclose details of the departing worker’s severance package.
The departure last month of La Joya ISD Board of Trustees President Oscar O. “Coach” Salinas and Vice President Armin Garza from the Agua Special Utility District came one month after the passage of Texas Senate Bill 814 and before the bill takes effect on Sept. 1. Enacted in the last legislative session and sponsored by McAllen Democratic Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, the bill prevents Agua SUD from employing elected officials who oversee the schools and cities where utility board members are employed. The bill’s passage left Salinas and Garza the choice between quitting their paying jobs with the utility that serves more than 15,000 customers or keeping their elected but unpaid positions on the school board which oversees a $330-million annual budget.
In 2015, the most recent year in which financial reports are available via the utility’s website, Agua SUD’s net position, or it’s total combined assets, were $83.5 million with total operating revenues of $9.3 million and total operating expenses of $6.8 million, according to its 2015 audit.
“They are not with Agua SUD anymore. I don’t remember the exact date but it was about a month ago that they resigned from Agua SUD as the result of Senate Bill 814,” said Attorney Ben Castillo, who represented both men in their departure from the utility.
Castillo said a non-disclosure clause in the separation agreement reached between both men and the utility prevents the involved parties from discussing its details.
At an Aug. 7 special school board meeting Salinas declined to comment while calls made to Garza, Agua SUD Executive Director Oscar Cancino and Board President Rogelio “Roger” Hernandez III were not returned.
In a February interview, Hinojosa said the bill was filed after his office was contacted by a number of constituents who were worried of a potential conflict of interest concerning several hires in Agua SUD related to the La Joya school district.
Under the bill, which became law June 9, the utility district may not employ an elected official from a governing entity – such as the La Joya school board – if any member of the utility district board works for that same governing entity.
Of the seven directors on the Agua SUD board, four are employees of the La Joya Independent School District. Salinas was employed as the utility’s community outreach coordinator and Garza was a project manager
Questioned by the Progress Times following the bill’s passage, Salinas and Garza said they would not give up their school board positions.
“I’m not going to resign from the school board,” Salinas said. “I am going to serve the people that elected me.”
Homer Tijerina, vice president of the utility’s board of directors, said he had heard but could not confirm that Salinas and Garza had each received a severance payment of at least $200,000. Because of the non-disclosure agreement, however, Castillo said he couldn’t comment.
“It’s just rumors,” Tijerina said. “There’s nothing concrete and it’s why I’m trying to find out more.”
Tijerina said he submitted a public information request to Cancino and the utility district at the beginning of July for information on employees affected by SB 814. But both parties have yet to provide that information, he said.
The Texas Attorney General’s website states a governing entity must reply to public information requests “within 10 business days.”
Tijerina said the resignations may have occurred after the Agua SUD board authorized Cancino, during a July 6 board meeting, to resolve any “potential dispute with employees who will be affected by Senate Bill 814.”
Hinojosa said questions regarding the separation agreement could be resolved if the utility board was more transparent, adding the public has a right to know how the district is utilizing taxpayers’ money. The utility receives grants from public agencies such as the Texas Water Development Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among others, according to prior published audits of the utility.
“It’s not right to keep that from being disclosed to the general public,” Hinojosa said. “If they do not disclose the amount of severance pay or any other details, it makes them seem like they’re hiding something. Maybe the actions are appropriate but you have to disclose that to the public. At some point we’ll get the information. We have too. The public has a right to know.”