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Discussions around who should fill the seat being vacated by two-term CPS Energy board member Ed Kelley are likely to be tense, if recent history is any guide.

The application period closed Tuesday.

Representation and ideology have dominated City Council discussions around several recent nominees to both of San Antonio’s public utility boards. In some cases, the conflict has centered on gender and race, while in others, business interests have run up against concerns from environmentalists and social justice activists.

With CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System each looking for a new board member, sources say Mayor Ron Nirenberg has been working behind the scenes to steer the appointment process at each utility.

“The process for filling the CPS Energy board position that will become vacant at the end of the year is just beginning,” he wrote in response to several questions from the San Antonio Report. “A lot of work and vetting lies ahead.”

At CPS Energy, Nirenberg’s preferred pick appears to be Francine Romero, an associate professor and chair of the public administration department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She currently chairs the city’s Conservation Advisory Board, and was former chair and still serves on the Zoning Commission. Nirenberg didn’t address a question about Romero in his emailed response.

Nirenberg wrote that he and the rest of the CPS Energy board members will focus on selecting “a strong board member who understands complex issues and the importance of our municipally owned power company.”

Romero declined to comment on her discussions with the mayor, although she confirmed the two “had a very brief conversation” in which she told him she was interested in the seat.

“I think he respects my work,” she said. “I was his zoning commission appointee back when he was the councilman for District 8.”

Former Haven for Hope CEO Kenny Wilson, who some business leaders want to see replace Kelley, said he isn’t deterred that the mayor may already has someone in mind. Wilson confirmed he submitted his application Tuesday before the 5 p.m. deadline.

“It’s [the mayor’s] job to always have people in mind,” Wilson said. “I think that’s kind of expected of him.”

Wilson said he’d be a strong candidate for the position because he has experience both running a large non-profit and in banking. Since stepping down from his position as the CEO and president of Haven for Hope this past April, Wilson said he’s been working as a part-time consultant. Wilson previously served as the president for Bank of America in San Antonio and Austin, where he oversaw thousands of employees.

During his five-year tenure at Haven for Hope, Wilson said he became acutely aware of the needs of impoverished San Antonians.

San Antonio environmentalists support applicant Adelita Cantu, an associate professor at UT Health San Antonio’s school of nursing who specializes in community health. Dee Dee Belmares, a San Antonio-based climate organizer with Public Citizen, said she and other local environmental advocates believe Cantu would be a good fit since she is well versed on the environmental impacts on public health. Belmares said the environmental community plans to “champion Adelita with every single person that we possibly can.”

Cantu did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.

Kelley told the San Antonio Report on Tuesday that of the 20 or so eligible applications for Quadrant 1 he’s seen so far, he is pleased to see several strong business-minded candidates among the applicants — his top priority for a replacement. Kelley, whose tenure ends on Jan. 31, 2022, chairs the two-person committee that will forward finalists to the full CPS Energy board.

Once the board approves a nominee, it is forwarded to the City Council for final approval.

“If you look at the existing board, we have some very outstanding people, but we don’t have anybody that has run a major business, and I think that’s an important ingredient,” Kelley said.

Janie Gonzalez, the board’s vice chair and other member of the personnel committee, said she was disappointed with the number of eligible applications received. For a city as large as San Antonio, 20 is not a lot, she said.

Gonzalez added that as a Latina woman, she understands the position the mayor is in as he advocates for his top choices for both utilities’ boards.

“I think leaders, they have a vision, and the mayor specifically has a vision for the organizations that support our city,” Gonzalez said. “As a trustee, I would love to see more participation. It’s unfortunate people still have to advocate for [minorities or women specifically] to be at the table … but it is what it is right now.”

Members of the City Council’s Governance Committee plans to interview SAWS board of trustees applicants at their next meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 15, said city public affairs manager Michelle Vigil. Leticia Ozuna vacated her seat following her election onto the San Antonio Independent School District school board in June. Earlier this month, city officials extended the deadline from Aug. 6 to Aug. 20.

SAWS CEO and President Robert Puente told the San Antonio Report he didn’t know why the deadline was extended, and that it’s not clear whether Nirenberg has a specific person in mind for the SAWS position. “That’s your job,” he said. Nirenberg didn’t address questions about the SAWS board in his email.

Jim Smyle, an environment and natural resources consultant who recently applied for the open SAWS seat, said he’s heard Nirenberg wants the SAWS position to go to qualified Latina.

“Honestly, I get that,” Smyle said. “I don’t have any problems with those sorts of policies.”

Smyle has been endorsed by the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, where he sits on the board, said Executive Director Annalisa Peace. 

Ethnic tensions were at play during the last SAWS board appointment in August 2020, when council members debated whether Robert Potts, a white South Side resident with an environmental science background could better represent that community than Fernando Reyes, a Mexican American auto manufacturing executive who lived in the Northside gated community the Dominion.

The SAWS board is structured so that each trustee represents a specific part of the utility’s service territory, but city ordinances don’t require that SAWS trustees actually live in the area they represent. Both Potts and Reyes ended up withdrawing, and the City Council confirmed small business owner Ed Belmares. 

The San Antonio Report has repeatedly requested a list of SAWS board applicants from the city clerk’s office. Vigil declined to share the names “at this time,” saying they hadn’t been vetted yet. She said the names will likely be posted on the Governance Committee’s agenda 72 hours prior to the meeting.

Senior Reporter Brendan Gibbons contributed to this report.

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

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.