Francine Romero, a University of Texas at San Antonio department chair, will replace Ed Kelley on the CPS board of trustees.
Francine Romero, a University of Texas at San Antonio department chair, will replace Ed Kelley on the CPS Energy board of trustees, pending city council approval. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This article has been updated.

In a rare divided vote Monday, CPS Energy’s board of trustees approved Francine Romero, a prominent voice on local environmental issues, to replace outgoing trustee Ed Kelley.

CPS Energy’s governing board voted 3-2 to recommend Romero, a University of Texas at San Antonio department chair, to represent the northwest quadrant of the utility’s service area. In a phone interview Monday, Romero pointed to her prior public service, including as chair of the city’s Conservation Advisory Board (CAB), as qualifying her to serve as a trustee of the largest municipally owned electric and gas utility in the U.S.

“I believe I’ve demonstrated the ability to learn everything I need to learn, to listen to all the different groups and individuals who have an area of expertise or experience that’s important to know,” said Romero, who chairs the department of public administration in UTSA’s College for Health, Community, and Policy.

Romero now faces a vote of the full City Council to confirm her appointment to the utility’s board. No date for that vote has been set. Prior to the close of the board meeting, board Chair John Steen made a motion for all trustees to support Romero as their pick before council, which passed unanimously.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who had backed Romero among a field of 26 candidates, voted in her favor Monday, along with CPS Energy trustees Janie Gonzalez and Willis Mackey. During Nirenberg’s 2020 push for a shift in sales tax use, Romero proved a key figure on the CAB, which passed a resolution in favor of the measure ahead of a final approval by voters in November. She also represented Nirenberg’s district on the City’s zoning commission when he was District 8 councilman.

“Dr. Romero is someone who has shown an exceptional ability to understand and address the needs of diverse constituencies in our community,” Nirenberg said in a prepared statement after the vote. “She is committed to upholding the public trust and exercising responsible fiscal stewardship to protect ratepayers.”

If confirmed, Romero would take over a seat held by Kelley, a retired USAA Real Estate executive and staunch business advocate, since 2012. Kelley and Steen voted for Clayton Killinger, a retired former executive of Valero convenience store spinoff CST Brands.

The other finalists were John Kelly, a retired Texas Department of Transportation engineer, and Denise Hernandez, vice president of development at True Flavors, a catering company.

In a phone interview, Kelley praised Romero’s qualifications and called her an “outstanding person.” However, he voted for Killinger because of his finance background, which Kelley sees as vital for overseeing an energy company with annual revenue of $2.6 billion.

“The only thing I was trying to do was put a round plug into a round hole,” Kelley said. “I’m not sure we did that.”

Some CPS Energy critics perceive the board as comprised only of business executives, but Kelley pointed out that his colleagues include a lawyer, a former school superintendent, a small business owner, and the mayor. He wanted someone whose high-level finance expertise mirrored his own.

“Finance really is the basis for the success of a company,” Kelley said. “No matter how ambitious you are, how creative you are, how you want to help people, whatever else, unless you have the resources to do it, then you’ll fail.”

Environmentalists have long awaited Kelley’s departure. Over the past two years, Kelley has attacked the utility’s energy efficiency programs and tried in early 2020 to block the long-awaited release of a report that modeled the cost of closing CPS Energy’s coal plants.

Kelley is also unconvinced that human activity is the main driver of rising global temperatures, a stance he reiterated Monday.

“I don’t think there’s much question that we’re having global warming,” Kelley said. “That is, I think, pretty well established. The reason, I don’t think, is well established. Is it because of human endeavors? Or is it because of natural forces? Or is it a combination of the two? And I’ve read an awful lot of articles on both sides of that.”

But despite Romero’s environmental track record, San Antonio’s most strident climate activists don’t necessarily think of her as one of their own.

Instead, climate activists wanted Adelita Cantu, a public health nurse and associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio who is outspoken about how climate change and air pollution affect the poor. Cantu was not among the four finalists considered Monday.

DeeDee Belmares a core member of Climate Action SA, a coalition of environmental and social justice groups, said many saw Cantu as “able to see that other side of the decision-making process at CPS Energy.”

“It is about rates, affordability, and reliability,” Belmares said. “But it’s also about how CPS Energy’s assets are polluting our air and affecting our health.”

Belmares said Romero had spoken with her last week her ahead of the CPS Energy vote and reached out to her again Monday. She said it’s not clear whether Climate Action SA will support Romero; the group makes decisions collectively and will need time to speak with Romero more in-depth.

“We need to vet her and make sure that she’s a candidate that’s going to represent everybody and not just the business community,” Belmares said.

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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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.