A water conservation expert’s bid to join the board of the San Antonio Water System failed with a split council vote following debate over whether a white man should represent the predominantly Hispanic South Side.

Robert Potts, former general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority and CEO of a nonprofit that promotes sustainable land use, was not confirmed to the SAWS board of trustees after City Council deadlocked 5-5 on his nomination. Councilman Manny Palaez (D8) was not present.

Two other SAWS board nominees had sailed through an Aug. 6 Council confirmation, but tensions over Potts’ nomination had been building since Aug. 3 when City Council’s Governance Committee picked to represent SAWS’ southern sector. Some officials were upset to see a white man picked for the position, and business leaders seized a chance to add a businessman to the board instead of an environmental professional.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, councilwomen Ana Sandoval (D7), Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), and councilmen John Courage (D9) and Roberto Trevino (D1), all voted for Potts. Councilwomen Rebecca Viagran (D3), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), and Clayton Perry (D10) all voted no.

The vote means that the Council’s Governance Committee will review existing applications or reopen the application process, Nirenberg said during the meeting.

The split vote came after Viagran motioned to instead nominate Fernando Reyes, CEO of a company that supplies Toyota at its South Side plant. Reyes was one of the six candidates interviewed by the Council’s Governance Committee but not among the three finalists. Pelaez had made the same motion in support of Reyes earlier this month. Nirenberg and City staff blocked both motions on procedural grounds.

Robert Potts.

During interviews with Council members and the San Antonio Report, Potts, who lives in the Lavaca neighborhood just south of downtown, said he believes affordability is the main issue affecting people in the southern half of SAWS’ service territory. The average SAWS residential user has seen bills increase from $54.34 in 2015 to $75.17 this year.

Potts had proposed structuring rates that would require heavy water users to shoulder more of the financial burden of expensive water sources such as SAWS’ Vista Ridge pipeline, while tying the average homeowner’s bills to cheaper sources, such as the Edwards Aquifer.

Ahead of the split vote, Viagran called Potts a “professional” but told him that “how you connect with people and the issues of the south sector is what I cannot wait on.”

Potts didn’t immediately respond to messages Thursday. Neither did Reyes, a resident of the far North Side gated community the Dominion. Reyes did grow up on the South Side and attended Harlandale High School, according to a 2016 story in the Dominion magazine.

Despite Potts’ current residence in the southern half of SAWS territory, the racial contrast between him and the majority of residents in that area was at the forefront issue leading up to the vote. Pat Jasso, a former AT&T executive and staunch advocate for putting her fellow Latinas in leadership roles, told the San Antonio Report earlier this month that she didn’t think a white man should take her place.

On Thursday, Sandoval, one of Potts’ advocates, addressed that issue, which appeared to be the main hangup in his confirmation. Sandoval acknowledged the lack of diversity in environmental sciences, something she experienced firsthand during her education and research at MIT, Stanford, and Harvard, where she said she frequently was the only Latina in the room.

“It’s important, because our aquifer is important and how we run these public agencies is important, that we have someone who brings that expertise to the table,” Sandoval said. “And yes, he happens to be a white man, and from someone who’s been in the field, I’ll tell you it’s really hard to find someone of color.”

Fernando Reyes.

Pelaez was the first to hold up Reyes as an alternative. During an Aug. 6 council meeting, Pelaez revived Reyes’ candidacy when he introduced a motion substituting Reyes’ name for Potts’.

In an Aug. 10 interview, Pelaez told the San Antonio Report that he didn’t go into that meeting planning on motioning for Reyes, whom Pelaez knows from his time an attorney for Toyota.

Pelaez said he simply saw the departure of SAWS board chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr., also CEO of a Toyota supplier, as a loss of business experience from the utility’s board. Pelaez said he wanted someone with that kind of experience rotating onto the board in Guerra’s absence. He also said the board already has one water advocate in the form of SAWS Trustee Amy Hardberger, a water and environmental law scholar.

Local business groups took notice, and the dichotomy between Potts and Reyes proved controversial enough to split the leadership of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. In a letter to council members, Chamber CEO Richard Perez recommended Reyes.

“His experience as a successful businessman, entrepreneur and community leader make him an ideal candidate to address the challenges and needs of our region,” Perez wrote. “We believe Fernando’s expertise in commercial real estate, land development, and manufacturing will contribute significantly to SAWS viability and economic growth.”

In a separate letter to City and SAWS officials, Adam Hamilton, CEO of Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) and the chamber’s 2020 board chair, vouched for Potts. Hamilton noted that his words did “not necessarily reflect the views” of the chamber or SWRI.

“By appointing Robert to the SAWS board, the City Council will send a clear signal to the community that future SAWS actions will include collaborative input from the environmental community,” Hamilton wrote.

In an interview, Pelaez described Potts as a “briliant dude” and “very well accomplished” but said the process of nominating candidates felt like a “forced coronation” of the Governance Committee’s selection. He wondered why nominees for SAWS shouldn’t go to the entire council from the beginning.

In any case, after Pelaez’s motion, most of San Antonio’s business community went all-in on Reyes, Pelaez said.

“I’ve been receiving calls and emails all day,” Pelaez said on Aug. 10. “It’s every chamber of commerce, every business group in town. … I mean, they’re leaning in this week on Reyes.”

That included many business leaders urging Pelaez to whip together enough votes behind the scenes to get Reyes over the finish line, something Pelaez felt no obligation to do.

“I did my part,” Pelaez said. “My part was to raise the issue of us not really having choices. If that amounted to giving Mr. Fernando Reyes one more day of oxygen, so be it.”

When Viagran made the motion to nominate Reyes on Thursday, Nirenberg objected, telling Viagran that “the vote today is to reaffirm the Governance Committee recommendation,” meaning she couldn’t just nominate Reyes from the dais. A City attorney backed Nirenberg.

Viagran then urged her colleagues to vote no or abstain.

“My main concern is the residents of the southern sector and in particular those south of [Highway] 90, those that we have seen as part of our disparities in our community,” Viagran said. “That needs to be taken into consideration. Not just discover what their issues are, but have a familiarity with them. Representation matters.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.