Several weeks ago City Council was deadlocked, 5-5 with one member absent, over whether to appoint Robert Potts for a San Antonio Water System board slot representing the South Side. He had been recommended by the Council’s governance committee after it screened applicants.
There is little question Potts is qualified regarding water issues. He was general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority from 2004 to 2007 and now heads the Dixon Water Foundation, a nonprofit concerned with sustainable water policy in agriculture. Potts, who is white, lives on the northern edge of the South Side in the gentrified Lavaca neighborhood just south of Hemisfair.
But his appointment was opposed by District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran. She noted that the Council had recently passed a resolution calling racism a public health crisis and suggested their board appointments should address that concern.
She and four of her colleagues voted for Fernando Reyes. Reyes is also well qualified, but as a business leader. He is the founder and CEO of the Reyes Automotive Group, which manufactures plastic automotive components for manufacturers including Toyota. He lives in the Dominion, the upscale Northside gated community, but his business has been on the South Side for decades.
Anyone who knows the history of San Antonio’s water board would find the choice between Potts and Reyes difficult. SAWS’ predecessor, the City Water Board, gave short shrift to both environmental concerns and the South Side for many decades. Dominated by developers – usually including its chairman, right up into the 1990s – it extended water mains for free to Northside suburban developments, using the rates paid by residents in the older parts of the city while allowing their pipes to deteriorate.
In the 1970s, the then-new COPS organization made the actions of the City Water Board a colorful issue. They once jeered the board’s chairman at a council meeting and for the TV cameras offered him two hats, demanding he wear either one that said “Developer” or one that said “Water Board Chairman.” The group had earlier taken me to the modest home of an Eastside couple, where the woman explained that the water pressure was so poor that if she flushed the toilet while her husband was in the shower he would be scalded.
I would love to have another environmentalist on the SAWS board. For 50 years the majority of voters have repeatedly demonstrated their environmental concerns, from voting against a mall over the aquifer recharge zone in the 1970s to defeating developer-backed council candidates virtually every chance they had, to repeatedly supporting a sales tax to protect land in the recharge and collection zones.
SAWS, and the City Water Board before it, have continuously had at least one developer as a member, but only recently was an environmentalist appointed. Water law expert and former Environmental Defense Fund activist Amy Hardberger, however, is only one of seven board members. It wouldn’t be outrageous to have two water experts with environmental concerns on the board.
But the city’s southern half also has been historically underrepresented. Until 1977 the City Council was entirely elected city-wide, and before that all the state representatives were elected county-wide – an obvious way of ensuring Anglo control in a heavily segregated city. That history and all it represents understandably remains more salient in the souls of many Hispanic and Black people than among white residents.
So a case can be made for picking the candidate with environmental and water expertise, and a case could be made for choosing a qualified person with executive experience who has the experience of being an Hispanic in San Antonio.
It was possible for grievance, so much a part of national political discourse, to come to the forefront on this issue. Some could argue the issue is white supremacy, others that it is “reverse racism.” Happily that’s not what played out. In fact, the 5-5 vote on City Council included three Hispanic members supporting Potts and three supporting Reyes.
Then came the actions of Potts and Reyes. Not wanting to be part of a divisive discussion, Potts asked to withdraw his application. Then, in an equal display of civic commitment, so did Reyes.
It was back to the governance committee to look at the other applicants. There was no shortage of qualified candidates. The committee has unanimously recommended for this Thursday’s council consideration Edward Belmares, a resident of the South Side whose qualifications include being a CPS Energy vice president, an assistant San Antonio city manager, the CEO of an engineering firm, and now head of his own consulting firm.
I hope the committee asked him good questions and checked his references. If he passes those tests, he should do swimmingly.