City Council District 10 candidate Reinette King.
Reinette King, pictured here in April 2019, said the SAWS Act petitioners believe they have until early February to collect enough signatures to trigger a May 1 election on their proposed charter amendment. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Water System is fighting them in court and their signature counts appear to be trailing another local petition drive, but the activists and government watchdogs in the SAWS Accountability Act PAC aren’t giving up.

Reinette King, one of the group’s leaders, told the San Antonio Report on Wednesday that they believe they have until early February to collect enough signatures to trigger a May 1 election on their proposed charter amendment.

“Our goal is to send SAWS and [President/CEO] Robert Puente an early valentine of 20,000 valid voter signatures,” King said.

The SAWS Act group hopes to pass an amendment to the city charter that would ratchet back the SAWS CEO’s pay, require audits for major projects, and enforce existing term limits on the SAWS board. Its members are fighting with SAWS’ lawyers in a Travis County district court over a complicated case involving the petition and the utility’s bonds.

Despite its efforts in court, it’s not clear that the SAWS Act group is close to securing the requisite number of signatures. The group won’t say how many it has, only that its members hoped to have more by now.

“We have not made a secret of the fact that we are in trouble,” said Linda Curtis, another SAWS Act group leader. Curtis, a Bastrop resident, is executive director of the League of Independent Voters of Texas, which has been organizing against SAWS’ Vista Ridge pipeline for years. Curtis cited social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic as one of the main roadblocks.

A similar petition drive targeting CPS Energy ended last week, with organizers saying they gathered 14,000 signatures, 6,000 short of their goal.

The petition deadline for the May ballot might have already passed, according to one interpretation of the rules.

According to the City, the clerk’s office has 20 business days to count the signatures, with another 72 hours needed to place the petition on a City Council agenda. The City is using Feb. 12 as its deadline for the City Council to set the May ballot.

That would mean the deadline for signatures passed on Jan. 11 or 12, depending on whether Martin Luther King Day is counted as a business day.

However, City officials would not confirm this date or provide any other deadline.

Multiple requests for information from the San Antonio Report yielded only a link to a petition FAQ and this cryptic email from the City’s public information office:

“To your question – petitioners have 20 business days to supplement a petition if it is found to be insufficient, then the clerk has 10 additional business days to verify that. If petitions are submitted soon, it is possible the City could have a placeholder for the verification report and ordering [sic] the election on the [Feb. 11] agenda, but would pull it if the verification is not complete by that date.”

King was much more direct.

“The city attorney is incorrect,” she said. She cited Section 37 of the City charter, which states that the clerk’s office has “20 days after a petition is filed” to do its verification work.

“As a former government contracting officer, I learned that ‘days’ does not mean business days unless it specifically states ‘business days,’” King said. “We confirmed this with our attorney as well.”

Further, King argued that City Council doesn’t need to take up the issue by Feb. 12, as City officials have said. Instead, her group is counting backwards from the week of March 8, when they believe the May ballots will be printed.

“City Council has a ministerial duty to call a meeting to put a measure on the ballot,” King said. “It does not have to be a Thursday meeting. They can call a special meeting. We confirmed this as well.”

King said she had received confirmation on the March 8 date from Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen.

However, Callanen didn’t immediately respond to a San Antonio Report request on Wednesday seeking confirmation.

One staffer who answered the phone at the Bexar County Elections Department on Wednesday said it was “too soon” to say when the ballots might be printed.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.