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State lawmaker may switch Agua SUD board to single-member districts

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa may switch the Agua Special Utility District board to single-member districts.

The switch would require approval from the Texas Legislature — and shift control of the utility board from city customers to rural residents.

AguaSUDLogoHinojosa said he discussed the issue with the utility district, which tentatively supported the proposal. The switch to single-member districts may become part of a bill designed to address potential conflicts of interest.

“It’s no longer ‘Chuy vs. Agua,’” Hinojosa said, referencing the nasty, no-holds-barred fight between western Hidalgo County and state lawmakers over Senate Bill 814, which targeted school board trustees who worked for the utility district. “We’re all on the same page.”

State law sets aside five seats on the seven-member utility board for representatives from Mission, Palmview, Peñitas, La Joya and Sullivan City. The remaining two seats represent customers from rural Hidalgo County and a small part of Starr County.

It’s a system that allows a minority of utility customers to elect a majority on the board.

In May 2018, when the utility district held an election, 279 registered voters lived within the small part of Mission served by the utility district. Sullivan City had 1,912 registered voters.

Mission and Sullivan City, though, receive equal representation on the utility board.

The system is especially lopsided for rural customers, who receive just two seats on the board.

In 2017, when the utility district attempted to block Senate Bill 814, then-Executive Director Oscar Cancino argued that replacing a county seat with a La Joya seat would disenfranchise rural customers.

“The City of La Joya currently only holds 2% of the Agua SUD service connections,” Cancino wrote to state lawmakers, according to records released under the Texas Public Information Act. “Removing an at large seat would leave over 9,000 connections with 2 representatives instead of 3.”

Lawmakers passed the bill anyway.

As a result, roughly 9,100 rural customers had just two representatives on the utility board, according to records Cancino provided to state lawmakers. Meanwhile, the approximately 6,200 customers who lived within city limits had five representatives.

Concerns about unequal representation aren’t new, said utility Board President Esequiel “Zeke” Ortiz Jr., who represents Palmview.

The utility board wants to work closely with Hinojosa on any changes, including the proposed switch to single-member districts.

Under the proposal, each of the single-member districts would represent an equal number of people. Districts would increase representation for rural residents and Palmview, the city with the largest number of customers.

“As long as we work together, we’ll be good on that,” Ortiz said, adding that utility district staff is talking with Hinojosa about the issue.

The utility board probably will support the switch, Ortiz said. Some details, including how the transition would work, may require additional discussion.

“I believe we’re onboard,” Ortiz said. “We’re on the same page as the senator right now. We’re working together.”

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