Willis Mackey (right) speaks to City Council members ahead of a April 5, 2018, vote to confirm him as a member of the CPS Energy board. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

After a nearly two-hour discussion on gender representation on the city’s boards and commissions, a divided San Antonio City Council approved a former school superintendent for the board of CPS Energy.

Willis Mackey, who retired in 2015 as superintendent of Judson Independent School District, will join the board of the municipally owned electric and gas utility following a 8-3 council vote in his favor.

After the vote, Mackey said he looks forward to learning more about the utility’s $2.6 billion business generating power and supplying energy to about 812,000 electrical customers and 345,000 natural gas customers in the San Antonio area.

“I don’t have any type of agenda starting out. I’m working with some fine board members, and I’d like to learn from them and continue to move forward,” said Mackey, who at Judson ISD managed a district with between 2,600 and 3,000 employees and a roughly $216 million operation and maintenance budget at the time of his retirement.

Mackey, who lives in Selma and ahead of the vote drew endorsements from the mayors of Live Oak and Converse, will replace two-term board member Derrick Howard in representing the utility’s southeast quadrant.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) was the most vocal against Mackey’s confirmation, though Council members Shirley Gonzales (D5) and Greg Brockhouse (D6) also voted no.

Viagran and Gonzales focused mainly on the all-male makeup of CPS Energy’s board.

“I know there were qualified women in this pool of candidates,” said Viagran, who called Mackey’s confirmation “a continuation of the status quo.”

“Diversity in leadership leads to better thinking, it leads to innovation, it prevents mistakes, it leads to better governance, and it ultimately leads to better outcomes,” she added.

Thursday was the second time in less than one month that heated discussion on gender politics emerged during a City Council vote on board members for one of San Antonio’s publicly owned utilities.

A March 8 vote on confirming Amy Hardberger, St. Mary’s University water law professor and associate dean, and two other male candidates to the board of the San Antonio Water System led some female council members to accuse Brockhouse of gender bias after he intensely questioned Hardberger over her appointment by Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

On Thursday, Brockhouse told other council members how his thinking has evolved since then.

“I did learn a valuable lesson out of that discussion,” he said. “I may be coming to issues, and I just see issues. I see numbers, or data, or analytics…I don’t see gender or identity politics…There are people on this dais who specifically live in that, they see it.”

As to why he voted no on Mackey, Brockhouse cited flaws in the process wherein the CPS Energy board selects its own replacements, interviews them in private, and makes an appointment that must then confirmed by City Council vote.

That’s a different structure than for the San Antonio Water System, whose board members are appointed by the mayor, vetted publicly by a City Council committee, and then subjected to a confirmation vote.

“My vote today is not about Mr. Mackey,” Brockhouse said. “It’s going to be about CPS Energy because I think they could do a whole heck of a lot better.”

The search for Howard’s replacement took seven months, CPS Energy Board Chair and former Texas Secretary of State John Steen said. Eighteen candidates – eight women and 10 men – applied for the position.

The board interviewed 12 of them and narrowed its pick to “two or three” finalists, Steen said, before initially selecting Terri Williams, a director at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She later withdrew to serve on the board of the North East Independent School District.

After that, Steen said the board interviewed the finalists a second time and decided on Mackey due to his experience at the helm of school districts.

“What stood out for me…is his organizational management experience,” said Nirenberg, who serves on the CPS Energy board in his official capacity. “He has been charged with going into large organizations, many times under distress, ensuring that they’re operating professionally and fiscally responsibly.”

Other council members also said they support Mackey as a candidate and trust CPS Energy to handle the interview and selection process.

“We have an interest but limited roles and responsibilities at CPS,” said Councilman Cruz Shaw (D2), who made the motion to approve Mackey.

“There’s a reason it was set up this way,” Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said . “I would be very cautious and critical of us taking a look at that organization and how it’s built, how it’s structured, and trying to make changes with it.”

CPS Energy will soon begin the process of finding a replacement for trustee Homer Guevara Jr., an economics and government professor at Northwest Vista College whose second term ends in 2019.

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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.