A retired school superintendent will face a City Council vote for nomination to the CPS Energy board Thursday, with some council members raising issues with the candidate and the process’ transparency.

After its previous nominee withdrew to serve on the board of the North East Independent School District, the CPS Energy board appointed Willis Mackey, who retired as superintendent for Judson Independent School District in 2015.

Council was set to vote on Mackey last week, but a spokesman for Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the mayor moved the vote to give more members time to meet with Mackey. Nirenberg serves on the CPS Energy board in his official capacity.

“Some council members have expressed reservations about the nomination, and a number of council members have not had the opportunity to meet with the nominee,” Bruce Davidson said in an email. “The postponement will give council members another week to get to know him.”

CPS Energy is the municipally owned utility serving roughly 812,000 electrical customers and 345,000 natural gas customers in the San Antonio area.

Unlike other local entities, CPS Energy’s board trustees interview applicants in private and vote amongst themselves to appoint them. That nominee must then be confirmed by City Council vote.

That differs from San Antonio’s other municipally owned utility, the San Antonio Water System. San Antonio’s mayor makes the nominations for the SAWS board, sometimes with council input. A City Council committee then interviews the candidates, who face a full council vote for approval.

If confirmed, Mackey would serve a five-year term replacing two-term board member Derrick Howard, who represents the utility’s southeast quadrant.

Willis Mackey
Willis Mackey

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), whose district falls into the territory Mackey would represent, said she has concerns about Mackey living outside city limits and about the all-male makeup of CPS Energy’s board.

“My community needs to be known; they need to be understood,” she said.

Viagran also called Mackey a “very nice man and very cordial,” but added that she wanted to see “fresh, new ideas.”

“Unfortunately, I didn’t see that with the person that CPS Energy is bringing forward,” she said.

Reached by phone Wednesday evening, Mackey, who served 17 years as a superintendent, deferred questions about his qualifications to CPS Energy Board Chair John Steen.

A former Texas Secretary of State who became chair of the utility’s board in January, Steen said Mackey’s experience managing school district budgets and passing bond issues made him the right candidate.

“When you’re a superintendent, you have to know that budget backwards and forwards, so he brings those skills,” Steen said.

Steen also said the board followed a “very thorough” application process that took seven months and involved interviewing 18 applicants.

“We really made an effort to try to get a good applicant pool,” Steen said. “We advertised, and we talked to community leaders; we talked with lots of people. We ended up with 18 applications, a very thorough process, and we actually went through two rounds of interviews.”

Steen also addressed the lack of women on the board. Before Nirenberg’s mayoral victory last year, the board included then-Mayor Ivy Taylor. CPS Energy’s first choice for the board vacancy, Terri Williams, is a woman.

“It’s important to have that diversity on the board, and it’s a good point,” Steen said. “I know we’ve got some of our councilmen and -women that that’s important to them, and we hear their concerns.”

Councilmen Roberto Treviño (D1), Cruz Shaw (D2), and Rey Saldaña (D4) all said they support Mackey as a candidate and are comfortable with how the CPS Energy board selected him.

“This is, at the end of the day, an ability for us to say we agree with the process that existed before it got to us, or we totally disagree with the process before it got to us,” Saldaña said. “I don’t see anything wrong with the process.”

But Viagran wasn’t the only council member to raise issues. Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) said he was “leaning no” on voting for Mackey.

“I don’t like the fact that they do it in private,” he said. “It’s five members choosing one of their own team.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said Mackey will “bring a good perspective for community engagement” due to his experience as superintendent, but was disappointed the applicant pool wasn’t broader, including more women and people with environmental backgrounds.

“I think this is a real learning experience with how do we move forward when we have a future opening,” she said. “These are very serious positions.”

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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.