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Texas Secretary of State’s Office will monitor Agua SUD election

At the request of state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office will monitor the Agua Special Utility District election.

Hinojosa said he sent a letter to the Secretary of State’s Office last week, requesting the Elections Division monitor the polls and document any shenanigans.

HinojosaThe Elections Division agreed to send a state inspector, who will monitor the polls on May 5.

“I think it’s important that people have trust and confidence in our elections,” Hinojosa said. “And the best way to protect the integrity of our elections in this type of situation is to have the Secretary of State send an observer to prevent these types of shenanigans.”

The Agua Special Utility District provides water and sewer service to more than 15,000 customers in western Hidalgo County and a small part of Starr County.

Members of the utility board manage an approximately $10 million budget and ultimately supervise more than 60 employees.

With four of the seven utility board seats on the ballot, the winning candidates could take control of the utility district in May. Early voting started Monday.

The race pits Agua SUD F1rst — an offshoot of Team L1berty, the dominant political party in western Hidalgo County — against challengers from Team Agua SUD and an independent candidate.

Hinojosa said he’s concerned power brokers in Peñitas and the La Joya school board may exert inappropriate influence over the election.

“This is more of a preventive measure to keep people in line,” Hinojosa said.

Concerns about the school board controlling the utility board aren’t anything new for Hinojosa.

A majority of the utility board members work for the school district. And until last year, two members of the school board worked for the utility district.

Troubled by the arrangement, Hinojosa authored a bill to block the elected officials from hiring each other. Members of the utility board, though, derided the bill as a political ploy.

From 2010 to 2016, at least three members of the utility board worked for the La Joya school district, which is the largest employer in western Hidalgo County. Texas law also prohibits certain people — including developers and their employees — from serving on the utility board, further limiting the pool of potential candidates.

Members of the utility board lobbied against the bill, but lawmakers approved the hiring restrictions anyway.

The utility district responded by approving severance packages for two school board trustees, which infuriated Hinojosa. Questions about the severance packages also prompted a criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers.

Amid the controversy, Hinojosa requested the Secretary of State’s Office monitor the election.

Incumbent utility board Director Lloyd Loya of Peñitas, who’s running for re-election, said he welcomes the Secretary of State’s Office to western Hidalgo County.

“We have no problem with it,” Lloya said, adding that the utility district isn’t doing anything wrong. “We don’t really need them here, but if they want to come, they can come.”

After the election, the state inspector will submit a report documenting any concerns or complaints.

“The people are going to decide who they want to put into office,” Lloya said. “I want to thank Sen. Hinojosa for his concern.”

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