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State lawmakers switch Agua SUD board to single-member districts, address conflicts of interest

A bill designed to address a smorgasbord of complaints about the Agua Special Utility District will become law Sept. 1.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa authored Senate Bill 2552, which targets potential conflicts of interest and switches the utility board from at-large seats to single-member districts.

AguaSUDLogo“It’s a very strong bill,” Hinojosa said. “It’s almost a model for all small utility districts and water districts.”

The bill includes a laundry list of prohibited behavior, which ranges from accepting inappropriate gifts to profiting from utility district contracts. It also places new restrictions on elected officials and employees, attempting to stop conflicts of interest before they start.

For example, any person “who serves as a corporate officer or member of the board of directors of a business entity or other organization that receives money from the district” may not serve on the utility board.

The same prohibition applies to people with relatives who fall within the “third degree of consanguinity or affinity” — how state law describes family members that range from children and parents to nieces and aunts.

Along with higher ethical standards, the bill includes provisions designed to make conflicts of interest easier to detect.

The bill requires all members of the utility board to file personal financial statements with the Texas Ethics Commission by Jan. 1, disclosing information about income, debt, property and investments.

Any member of the board who fails to file the report could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor.

Perhaps the most ambitious part of the bill involves a searchable database of utility district expenditures.

“The database must include the amount, date, description, payor and payee of the expenditures, and, if applicable, parties to the contract,” according to the bill.

Employee salary data is the only category of information exempted from the database requirement. Members of the public may still request that data under the Texas Public Information Act.

The bill also switches the utility board from at-large seats to single-member districts.

When state lawmakers created the utility district, they dictated how the board would represent western Hidalgo County residents.

Lawmakers set aside three seats for rural Hidalgo County customers. The remaining seats were reserved for Mission, Palmview, Peñitas and Sullivan City. La Joya, which is served by a city-owned utility, didn’t initially receive a seat on the board.

The arrangement left customers with unequal representation.

Mission, where the utility district provides water to just a few neighborhoods, had the same representation as Sullivan City, where the utility district provides water and sewer to all residents.

Rural customers lost a seat in 2018, when La Joya received representation on the board.

The bill addresses complaints about unequal representation by switching the utility board to single-member districts.

Assisted by attorneys and redistricting experts, the utility board will draw seven districts with roughly equal populations.

Three district seats will appear on the May 2020 ballot. The remaining four seats will appear on the May 2022 ballot.

Board President Esequiel “Zeke” Ortiz Jr. thanked Hinojosa for working closely with the utility district throughout the legislative process.

“We look forward to implementing the new legislation which will provide a more equitable representation of all rate payers with the creation and election of the seven single member district director positions,” Ortiz said in a statement. “We want to reassure the community that we will continue working with Senator Hinojosa as we continue the successful operation of Agua SUD. Once the legislation clears the Governor’s desk, the Board of Directors will begin the process of implementing the provisions of this legislation.”

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