City Council confirmed a longtime local government official and an information technology expert as members of the San Antonio Water System board Thursday, but delayed the appointment of a conservation expert.

City Council voted unanimously to confirm Jelynne LeBlanc Burley, CEO of the Center for Healthcare Services and a former City and CPS Energy official, to represent the northern half of SAWS’s service territory and to serve as chair of the municipal water and sewer utility.

All council members also voted to confirm Leticia Ozuna, a former District 3 councilwoman with a background in systems engineering and cybersecurity, for a board seat representing SAWS’ southeastern quadrant.

But on a 9-2 vote, the council delayed the consideration of Robert Potts, CEO of the Dixon Water Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable ranching practices, to represent SAWS’ southern half.

The vote to delay came after Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), sought to substitute Fernando Reyes, who owns an auto parts manufacturing company that supplies Toyota and was one of the finalists interviewed Monday by the council’s Governance Committee, in place of Potts. Pelaez said he wanted to see someone with business experience appointed after the impending departure of business leader Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr., who has chaired the SAWS board since 2011.

“I think of utilities as enterprises,” Pelaez said. “Those enterprises are best served when the people exercising that oversight have expertise in management, capital and operating costs, asset depreciation, product pricing, cost recovery, cost management … et cetera.”

The exchange followed remarks from Pat Jasso, the outgoing SAWS trustee representing the southern sector since 2013 who told the Rivard Report Wednesday that her replacement ought to be “somebody that looks like the people of the South Side.” Jasso is Latina; Potts is white.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) was the only council member to refer to Jasso’s comments Thursday, calling them “entirely unfair” and “not informed with the information that [Potts] brings to this council.”

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) later motioned to delay a vote on Potts until next Thursday’s meeting. All council members voted for the delay except Sandoval and Councilman John Courage (D9). Both served on the Governance Committee that recommended the three candidates, along with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Garcia, and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5).

“If you think that was an easy decision, it was absolutely not easy at all,” Sandoval said of the Monday Governance meeting, which included a 40-minute closed session. “There was arm-twisting, there was arm-wrestling, there were headlocks, metaphorically speaking, in that executive session,” she said.

The vote is the second time recently that an appointee with a conservation background faced controversy in being confirmed to the SAWS board. In 2018, a heated debate over sexism emerged during council’s consideration of SAWS Trustee Amy Hardberger, an environmental and water law scholar and associate provost at St. Mary’s University.

“It really is remarkable that none of our SAWS appointments go as smoothly as we would like them to,” Nirenberg joked at Thursday’s meeting.

Pelaez told Potts on Thursday that in Hardberger, the SAWS board already has “an expert in sustainability” and “all the issues that come under the umbrella of environmental.”

Sandoval, who previously worked in an environmental science field, told Pelaez that it’s “absolutely not fair to put all scientists in the same box.”

She also accused Pelaez of supporting Reyes because of Reyes’s ties to the Toyota plant. Pelaez was a longtime attorney for Toyota. Guerra is chairman and CEO of Avanzar Interior Technologies, Toyota’s largest supplier at its San Antonio manufacturing facility.

“I do not think it is appropriate for a municipal utility to always reserve a spot for someone who is involved with the Toyota plant,” Sandoval told Pelaez.

Pelaez responded that he never said all scientists are the same and called Sandoval’s remarks a “cheap shot.” He said his interest in Reyes was because of his business experience and because Toyota is one of SAWS’ largest customers.

“I really don’t care if they come from Toyota or not,” Pelaez said. “I want representation from the largest customers. … Had [Reyes] applied from Sea World or a bottling plant, I’d still be advocating for somebody with that experience.”

Council members are expected to take up Potts’s nomination again on Aug. 13.

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