Candidates campaigning for the Agua Special Utility District board present western Hidalgo County voters with a choice: Team L1berty or Team Agua SUD.
For independent candidate Noe Garza, it’s a distinction without a difference.
The three-way race pits Garza — a gadfly perhaps best known for his Facebook posts — against incumbent utility board Director Lloyd Loya and challenger Juan Gonzalez.
Team L1berty supports Loya, who’s running for a second term. Team Agua SUD backs Gonzalez, a political neophyte who works for the Pharr Police Department.
Just two years ago, though, supporters of Team L1berty and Team Agua SUD campaigned together, Garza said, adding that he represents the only real option for people who want change.
Garza said he wants to reassure voters who fear they’ll face retaliation for supporting someone who isn’t part of the political power structure.
“What I want to make clear to the people: That’s not the way it is. You don’t have to fear (for) your job. You don’t have to be intimidated because they’re in those positions,” Garza said. “What people got to know is: You put them there. And you can simply remove them.”
Questions about Garza’s past, though, may pose problems during the campaign.
The Peñitas Police Department charged Garza with misdemeanor theft in December 2014, when a Walmart employee accused him of shoplifting, according to city records.
When the incident occurred, Garza worked for the La Joya Independent School District.
The school district assigned a police lieutenant to review what happened, according to personnel records. After watching surveillance video from Walmart, the lieutenant concluded Garza took a tube of Gold Bond lotion without paying.
“It is my recommendation that Security Officer Noe Garza be terminated,” the lieutenant wrote in the investigation report, which also faulted Garza for making false statements about what happened.
Rather than terminate him, the school district suspended Garza, according to a handwritten note on the investigation report.
Garza said he didn’t steal anything and the Peñitas Municipal Court dismissed the misdemeanor theft charge.
“I saw the video,” Garza said, adding that contrary to the note, the school district didn’t actually suspend him. “There’s nothing there.”
Supervisors also reprimanded Garza — and eventually recommended terminating him — for excessive absences.
Garza had other minor run-ins with law enforcement, including citations for more than 40 traffic violations, according to court records. Judges dismissed many of the charges. Garza occasionally pleaded no contest and paid fines.
“I was young. I was stupid, you know what I mean,” Garza said, adding that traffic citations are just Class C misdemeanors. “I don’t have a criminal record.”
Garza now works for the Mission Consolidated Independent School District, where he handles risk management. He’s also attending the local police academy.
Pharr police Sgt. Juan Gonzalez, 37, of Peñitas also filed for the utility board.
Attempts to schedule an interview with Gonzalez were unsuccessful, but he spoke about the issues during a meet-and-greet hosted by former La Joya school board Trustee J.J. Garza, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud.
“My goal is just to make sure that we get in there and do what’s right,” Gonzalez said.
During the past two years, the utility district went through a dizzying succession of administrators.
Executive Director Julio Cerda resigned in September 2016, when the board went through a major shakeup. The utility board appointed Oscar Cancino to replace him.
When Cancino quit less than a year later, they named Richard LeFevre to the new general manager position. He lasted just a few months. Interim General Manager Eddie Saenz took over during December.
The utility district also fought with state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
After the balance of power shifted on the utility board, Hinojosa said he became concerned about conflicts of interest.
A majority of the utility board members worked at the La Joya school district. Meanwhile, two school board trustees — President Oscar “Coach” Salinas and Vice President Armin Garza — worked for the utility district.
Hinojosa authored Senate Bill 814, which banned the reciprocal employment 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.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Gonzalez said, adding that the utility district should spend public money carefully.
Gonzalez said fixing the utility district will take hard work and support from the community.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Gonzalez said. “But I’m ready for the challenge.”
“At the end of the day, if you’re running because of severance packages, you don’t have the right mindset,” said utility board Director Loya A. Loya, 31, of Peñitas, who’s running for re-election.
Lawmakers considered a version of Senate Bill 814 with a grandfather clause, which delayed implementation of the conflict of interest provision for several years. The Texas Legislature ultimately passed a much stricter version.
After the bill passed, the utility board authorized the executive director to resolve any problems that resulted. With help from an attorney, the executive director approved the severance packages.
“And they did what was best for Agua SUD at that time,” Loya said. “I’m not trying to throw it on anyone. That’s just the way it is. They did what they had to do — in the best interests of Agua SUD and our community.”
Loya said he’s proud of what the utility board accomplished during the past few years, including lowering meter fees, which spurred development; finally breaking ground on the Palmview sewer project, which had been on the drawing board for years; and starting an internship program for local students.
Along with providing sewer service, the Palmview project will help the city attract new businesses.
“That’s going to make the city grow. That’s going to bring people in,” Loya said. “That’s one of the reasons why you don’t see big businesses there in Palmview — because there’s a lack of sewer.”
Early voting starts April 23. Election day is May 5.