San Antonio Water System Vice Chair Pat Jasso doesn’t think highly of the criticism SAWS gets during its monthly meetings. The commenters tend to show up, say their piece, and leave early before the utility’s board and staff get down to their regular business.

But one thing that deeply bothered her was a protest sign at a February press event organized by the opposition group known as the SAWS Accountability Act PAC. The group was drawing attention to SAWS Chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. and trustee Pat Merritt staying on the board beyond their term limits, which expired in May 2018. Jasso’s term expired in May of this year.

At her final SAWS meeting Tuesday, Jasso said the portrayal on the activists’ sign of dark-toned hands being flushed down a toilet “sticks to me forever.”

“Nobody got up in arms about that,” Jasso said. “That feeling, that perception is out there all the time, and we have to be aware of those perceptions because it colors what happens in this world.”

In San Antonio, a Southern city with a colonial history and a Hispanic majority population, appointments to major boards like SAWS sometimes become windows into racial politics behind the scenes.

Newcomers will fill the three positions on SAWS board if the City Council approves them Thursday. On Monday, Center For Healthcare Services CEO Jelynne LeBlanc Burley, systems engineer Leticia Ozuna, and Robert Potts, the CEO of a sustainable ranching nonprofit, all cleared a review of six finalists by the Council’s Governance Committee.

In an interview Wednesday, Jasso expressed skepticism about the appointment of Potts, a white man, to fill her former role on the SAWS board, saying it should be “somebody that looks like the people of the South Side.”

“How [is he] going to be advocating for them?” Jasso said of Potts. “I don’t get it. Well, I do get it. We’re back to politics and the white guys being in charge.”

Members of the SAWS Accountability Act PAC hold a new conference in February. Some of the signs at the event called for replacing Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. and Pat Merritt, whose terms of the SAWS board had expired. Credit: Shari Biediger / San Antonio Report

The tension Jasso brought up Tuesday between SAWS and its chief critics is tangled up with the Vista Ridge project, controversial a $2.8 billion water pipeline that SAWS is hooking into its system. The SAWS Accountability Act PAC often focuses its ire on Vista Ridge, which SAWS expects to finish integrating by Sept. 1.

At the February rally, the PAC launched a City charter amendment petition to ratchet back the SAWS’ CEO’s pay, enforce existing term limits for the utility’s board, audit Vista Ridge and any other project $1 billion or more, and halt SAWS’ lobbying efforts. Reinette King, one of the PAC’s leaders, also was part of a firefighters union-led campaign for 2018 charter amendments aimed, in part, at undercutting then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

Asked about the hands on the poster, King said the artist who made the poster “was actually a Hispanic artist.”

“But since then, I wasn’t comfortable with [the posters], and some members of the group weren’t too comfortable with it,” King continued. “The artist called for them back, and I suppose she probably destroyed them. That all happened before Pat Jasso said that.”

In the interview Wednesday, Jasso pointed to bias behind the PAC’s campaign, saying that “if it was a white guy that was beyond his expiration date, nobody would say anything.”

King, who is white, said that’s not true.

“The whole point was that we really need people that are past their terms to leave,” King said.

Jasso’s comments came during her final meeting of the utility board she’s been a part of since 2013. A finance professional who worked for Southwestern Bell and then its successor AT&T for 35 years, Jasso said her objective is to see more historically underrepresented groups in positions of power in the city.

“I just need to see women and people of color get into positions where they can make a difference and then remember why they got there and for what reason they are there: to make change and reflect change,” Jasso said.

A former general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, Potts was among the group who 25 years ago pushed for the use of a sales tax to preserve land over the Edwards Aquifer. In an interview Wednesday, Potts, who lives in the Lavaca neighborhood, said his background in water issues will make him an effective advocate for affordable pricing for SAWS customers.

“In terms of being a white male, yeah, I’m a white male,” Potts said. “I can’t say anything against that. But in terms of advocating for our constituency, I think I have the water background and the knowledge to really look at ways to maintain and improve the rate structure for the people that live on the South Side.”

Potts is not among SAWS’ regular critics, those Jasso brought up during the meeting. Potts said Wednesday that he’s “never been against Vista Ridge” but that he’d like to see the average SAWS users’ rates tied to the utility’s less expensive sources.

“I do think we’ve got to recognize that the basic homeowner can get the water they need from the Edwards Aquifer and be priced accordingly, and they shouldn’t have to be stuck with some of this high-cost water that we’ve had to bring in to support other users,” Potts said.

Potts’ appointment wouldn’t be the first time the choice of known water advocate for the SAWS board proved controversial or the first time such an appointment brought other background tensions to the fore. In 2018, the City Council vote to confirm water law expert Amy Hardberger to the SAWS board erupted into a debate over sexism.

What’s different now is the tension between pro-SAWS officials and an opposition reawakened by turmoil around Vista Ridge.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), a Governance Committee member, referenced that tension in a question to Burley, a former City and CPS Energy official under consideration for SAWS board chair.

Despite the completion this year of Vista Ridge, a project twice approved by previous Councils, Sandoval and her colleagues continue to hear from those who oppose it, she said.

“What could you do to open a dialogue with those folks and find some resolution?” Sandoval asked Burley.

“As a public servant, I’ve learned over the last 40 years that no issue is ever done,” Burley replied. “In the role that you’re in, you owe it to your constituency to answer their question and provide factual information to them and explain the basis for the decision. And many times, they will never accept the basis for your decision. And that’s fine, but your role never ends.”

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