While much maligned by western Hidalgo County leaders, Senate Bill 814 had a silver lining for La Joya: a seat on the Agua Special Utility District board.
Authored by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, the bill included provisions designed to protect the utility board from political pressure — by banning elected officials from hiring each other.
Over objections from Sullivan City, La Joya, Peñitas, the La Joya Independent School District and the utility district, which called the provisions “unconstitutional limitations” on public employment, the Texas Legislature passed the bill in May.
Another provision, though, attracted little attention.
The bill added a seat on the seven-member utility board for La Joya, the only city in western Hidalgo County without a representative.
“Now they’re going to be having a voice there, in the community,” said La Joya police Chief Adolfo Arriaga, who’s running for the La Joya seat.
Arriaga faces J.J. Luna, a union organizer with the La Joya American Federation of Teachers, during the May election.
The winning candidate will replace utility board Director Ricardo Ochoa and represent more than 300 utility customers in La Joya.
Team L1berty, the dominant political party in western Hidalgo County, and La Joya Citizens Working Together, the political committee affiliated with Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas, backed Arriaga for the utility board.
“I’ve lived all my life here in La Joya,” Arriaga said. “I think that the community can see that I’ve always been here and been for the community.”
Arriaga started working at McDonald’s at 16 years old and became a manager after graduating from La Joya High School. After six years at McDonald’s, he decided to switch careers and become a cop.
The La Joya Police Department offered Arriaga a full-time job in October 2013. He quickly won a promotion to sergeant and took over the department in December 2017, when the city fired police Chief Ramon Gonzalez.
If elected, Arriaga said he would bring leadership skills from law enforcement to the utility board.
“I think I can represent and have a voice for the community now,” Arriaga said, adding that he wanted the utility board to address complaints or concerns from La Joya customers. “I can bring them up in the committee and help out, and have a voice for them.”
Arriaga said he couldn’t comment on issues facing the utility board — including controversial severance payments, which prompted a criminal investigation; the reduction in water meter fees, which helped spur development; and management turnover, which left the utility district with four administrators during the past two years — because he didn’t know all the details.
“I cannot say because I’m not actually there,” Arriaga said, adding that he would review the issues and form opinions after joining the board.
When utility board Director Homer Tijerina and former Peñitas Mayor Marcos Ochoa asked him to run, Luna said he hesitated.
“I never really wanted to get involved in it — because of all the stuff you hear and see,” Luna said. “But I got tired of what’s going on.”
Luna said he joined the Team Agua SUD ticket, but told them he wouldn’t make decisions based on politics.
“I told them ‘If I go in there, I’m not going to be a puppet for no one,’” Luna said. “That’s not the reason I’m going in there. I’m going in there to, hopefully, make some change. To help out the community.”
Concern about severance payments convinced him to run, Luna said.
After the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 814, the utility district approved two severance payments: $221,000 for La Joya school board President Oscar “Coach” Salinas, the utility community relations coordinator; and $268,000 for La Joya school board Vice President Armin Garza, the utility project manager.
Members of the utility board said severance agreements allowed them to amicably part ways with Salinas and Garza, who were forced to choose between working at the utility district and serving on the school board. Critics blasted the board for secretly approving six-figure payouts for school board trustees.
“You can see where the power is at. The power is at the school board,” Luna said. “And from there, well, they control everything else.”
Luna said the severance packages showed how Team L1berty rewards members with taxpayer money and cushy jobs.
“They control the Agua SUD, they control the city of Peñitas, the city of Sullivan, La Joya, the credit union, the school board,” Luna said. “And then you see all these folks that are getting promotions, that are getting pay hikes for nothing. Some of them can’t even be certified to be teachers.”
None of the Team Agua SUD candidates work for the school district, Luna said, adding that they’ll be free from political pressure.
Early voting starts April 23. Election day is May 5.