When the mayor asked him to serve on the Agua Special Utility District board, Ivan Sandoval initially balked.
“I know the way politics is,” said Sandoval, 33, a teacher at the La Joya Independent School District.
“I’ve never been in politics. I’ve just helped around,” Sandoval said. “But I know the way they are: you spit over here and they want to talk about that.”
Sullivan City, though, needed a voice on the board. Director Francisco “Pancho” Flores, who represented the city, hadn’t attended board meetings for months. Fellow directors finally removed him in November, leaving the seat vacant.
Mayor Leo Garcia, who had known Sandoval since elementary school, asked him to accept the position. After mulling the request for more than a week, Sandoval accepted.
Four months later, he’s now running for a full four-year term.
“Why run for re-election? It’s a good question,” Sandoval said. “I really want to help people out.”
The campaign pits Sandoval against Julian Peña, a 32-year-old construction contractor. They’re both lifelong residents of Sullivan City.
Sandoval is supported by Team L1berty, the dominant political party in western Hidalgo County. Peña is running with a rival slate called Team Agua SUD, supported by Director Homer Tijerina and former Peñitas Mayor Marcos Ochoa.
With four seats on the ballot — representing Sullivan City, La Joya, Peñitas and Mission — the winning team may form a majority on the seven-member board.
The election follows two years of turmoil, which left the utility district without a permanent general manager and mired in a public fight with state lawmakers.
After Executive Director Julio Cerda resigned in September 2016, the board appointed Oscar Cancino to replace him. Cancino lasted less than a year. His replacement, General Manager Richard LeFevre, quit after just a few months on the job.
The utility district also feuded with state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
Hinojosa said he became concerned about a reciprocal employment relationship between the utility district board and the school board.
Two school board trustees — President Oscar “Coach” Salinas and Vice President Armin Garza — worked for the utility district. Meanwhile, a majority of the utility board members worked at the school district.
Hinojosa authored Senate Bill 814, which banned the arrangement. After lawmakers passed the bill, the utility district approved six-figure severance packages for the school board trustees.
Garza got $268,000, according to utility district records. Salinas received $221,000.
Concern about the severance payments prompted Peña, a construction contractor with no political background, to run for the board.
“I’m just doing it for the people,” Peña said during a candidate meet-and-greet hosted by former La Joya school board Trustee J.J. Garza, who’s awaiting sentencing for conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Sandoval wasn’t on the utility board when the severance packages were approved.
“I understand that people are mad because of that. It’s understandable,” Sandoval said. “But I’m not there to do anything like that. I’m just there trying to represent Sullivan City. To help the people.”
Peña also questioned why the utility district paid Sullivan City about $134,000 to fix El Pinto Road, but didn’t require the city to hire a professional contractor. To save money, the mayor and city workers decided to rebuild the road themselves.
If the work isn’t completed correctly, the money will be wasted, Peña said.
Sandoval said he counted the El Pinto Road project among the board’s major accomplishments, along with lowering meter fees to spur development.
“That’s a big plus right there,” Sandoval said about the lower meter fees, which had become a major obstacle to commercial development in western Hidalgo County. “But people don’t see that.”
Early voting starts April 23. Election day is May 5.