Agua SUD prepares for switch to single-member districts

This article originally appeared in the Friday Aug. 23, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.

With assistance from a prominent San Antonio attorney, the Agua Special Utility District board is preparing for a switch to single-member districts.

Senate Bill 2552, which the Texas Legislature passed in May, requires the utility board to switch from seats that represent city and county residents to single-member districts with roughly equal populations.

AguaSUDLogoThe board must approve districts by Dec. 31 and select three members who will run for re-election in May 2020.

“There’s going to be no more at-large county representatives,” said attorney Frank Garza, who discussed the switch July 27 during a board workshop at the Isla Grand Beach Resort on South Padre Island.

Four members of the board — board President Lloyd Loya of Peñitas, board Vice President Cesar Rodriguez Jr. of Mission, board Secretary Adolfo Arriaga of La Joya and board Treasurer Ivan Sandoval of Sullivan City — attended the three-day workshop. Director Roger Hernandez, who represents rural Hidalgo County residents; Director Esequiel “Zeke” Ortiz Jr., who represents Palmview residents; and Director Homer Tijerina, who represents rural Hidalgo County residents; didn’t attend.

The workshop cost about $13,300, which included 13 hotel rooms, meals and other expenses, according to documents released by the utility district under the Texas Public Information Act.

Garza, utility district General Manager Jose E. “Eddie” Saenz, consultant Jeff Snowden and lobbyist Elvia Caballero Lopez discussed a wide array of issues with the board.

They spent hours discussing Senate Bill 2552, which included the switch to single-member districts and tough new transparency requirements for board members. State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa authored the bill.

Under the current system, a seven-member board of directors sets policy and supervises the general manager.

Residents of Mission, Palmview, Peñitas, La Joya and Sullivan City elect one director each. The remaining two directors are elected by rural Hidalgo County residents.

The current system hands board seats to a tiny sliver of Mission and a relatively small part of La Joya. Residents of rural Hidalgo County, meanwhile, are significantly underrepresented.

Under the new system, the utility board must approve seven single-member districts with a roughly equal number of residents.

The utility board hired attorney Rolando L. Rios of San Antonio, an expert on redistricting, to draft the maps. Each district will include about 3,000 residents.

“It’s going to be more precise when the attorney that was hired, Mr. Rios out of San Antonio, gets the census count,” Garza said, adding that Rios probably will present the board with several options.

Along with approving the single-member districts, the board must assign members to the new districts. That decision could become contentious if the board draws two or more members into the same district.

Garza addressed that scenario with an example tailored to the board members who attended the workshop.

“If the board or the majority votes — which is four of ya’ll — votes and says ‘OK, us four are going to get our own districts but the other two or three people are going to be stuck. We’re going to put them in one district.’ Then those three people are stuck in District #5 and then district six and seven are vacant for election purposes,” Garza said. “So those seats could be assigned however the majority votes to assign, basically.”

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