A coalition of citizens groups wanting greater oversight of the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) announced Sunday it is launching a petition drive to put the issue to voters in 2021.

As the mayor and SAWS leadership look to shift sales tax dollars away from the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and use it to fund mass transit, a group formed as the SAWS Accountability Act PAC (political action committee), held a press conference where they aired their grievances with the City and SAWS and outlined a proposed charter amendment.

“In 2014, the San Antonio City Council rammed the Vista Ridge Pipeline Project on SAWS ratepayers and landowners 142 miles away,” said Reinette King, media secretary of the Vista Ridge Resolution Coalition. “They were warned it would harm San Antonio’s own source of drinking water, the mighty Edwards Aquifer. This is precisely what is happening today with the mayor and the majority Council’s plan to unravel the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program.”

Vista Ridge is a water pipeline set to deliver 16.3 billion gallons per year from underground aquifers northeast of Austin to San Antonio customers starting April 15. SAWS officials have said the project allows San Antonio to have water in future times of scarcity at today’s prices.

But groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Independent Voters, and others who denounce the Vista Ridge project have introduced the “SAWS Accountability Act” to give the City more oversight of the public utility.

The accountability act calls for a reduction in pay for the SAWS general manager, with the salary fixed by City Council and not exceeding 10 times that of the lowest-paid SAWS employee.

The 2018 city charter election, which called for similar pay limits for the city manager, was intended for future managers. In this case, the amendments don’t specify whether new salary requirements would apply to Puente. But another document the group presented on Sunday, summarizing the accountability act, states they plan to “ratchet back [Puente’s] outrageous pay.”

Stanley Mitchell of San Antonio Making Bureaucracies Accountable said compensation for the present president and CEO, Robert Puente, is “far out of line” with other utility officials and exhibited a copy of a report on executive compensation published by the Rivard Report in August 2019. According to the report, Puente earned $596,520 in total compensation for 2018 – possibly the highest CEO pay among U.S. public water utilities.

SAWS President & CEO Robert Puente walks in to B Session to present in front of City Council.
(center) SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In addition, the group wants City Council to limit SAWS’ lobbying efforts at the local, state, and national levels and prohibit trustees (and the general manager) from working for the City or SAWS, or representing others, for a period of four years following their term.

It also seeks term limits for SAWS leadership and an end to Berto Guerra’s term as chairman of the board.

Another section of the accountability act would require all existing and future SAWS projects that exceed $1 billion to undergo an independent performance audit. Vista Ridge and its related agreements are included in that provision.

Although King cited the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, the accountability act makes no mention of it.

Darby Riley of the Alamo Sierra Club said his group and others long ago “tried to blow the whistle” on the Vista Ridge project.

“But it was too little, too late,” he said. “They hustled it through the board, they hustled it through the City Council. As a $3.4 billion tax on the public, without any vote, it’s one of the biggest mistakes ever made in San Antonio – a huge, huge error. So we have to get better control of our publicly owned utilities.”

The group needs 20,000 petition signatures to have the charter amendment added to the May 2021 ballot, King said, and is working to get all the signatures within six months.

She added that they will begin going door-to-door to collect signatures, and some homeowner associations have agreed to hold events where the petition can be circulated.

In 2018, King served as a spokesperson for the pro-amendments San Antonio First campaign and argued in favor of Proposition A, which would have expanded the scope of City Council decisions that could be challenged with a public vote and make it easier to get such issues on the ballot. That measure failed.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.