San Antonio’s top business organizations have launched a joint effort to defeat charter amendment petitions aimed at the city’s municipally owned utilities.

Leaders of the Greater San Antonio, Hispanic, and North San Antonio chambers of commerce on Thursday announced the NoPetitionSA, or NOPE, campaign to defeat the SAWS Accountability Act and Recall CPS petition drives started by two groups of loosely affiliated activists and volunteers. Both seek 20,000 signatures to put the measures on the May 2021 ballot.

The CPS Energy petition would replace the utility’s board with direct City Council oversight, remove coal from its generation mix by 2030, divest entirely from fossil fuels by 2040, and require CPS Energy to restructure its rates to an inclining scale, among other measures.

The SAWS petition would cap its CEO’s pay at 10 times that of the lowest-paid SAWS employee and create an eight-year term limit for the position. Its reforms also include banning lobbying by SAWS and enforcing existing term limits for SAWS board members.

Chamber leaders urged San Antonio residents to reject such changes. They argued that injecting political risk into CPS Energy’s and SAWS’ operations will lead to higher bills for residents and businesses already struggling during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our water and wastewater utility and our electric and gas utility are well-run, they’re financially strong, they’ve got programs to help the most needy in our community, and they have a steadfast commitment to conservation and renewables,” said Richard Perez, CEO of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, at a Wednesday press event.

“As that old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Marina Gonzales said.

The business-led campaign comes as volunteers and activists gather signatures at polling sites during early voting. Both petition drives have been boosted by Black and Latino progressive organization Texas Organizing Project, and youth engagement nonprofit MOVE Texas has lent its mobilization power to the CPS Energy petition.

The two petitions also echo the tactics of a recent charter amendment petition drive launched by the firefighters union during a heated standoff over the City’s contract with the union. Voters approved two of the three amendments in 2018, and longtime City Manager Sheryl Sculley resigned weeks after the passage of one of the amendments that capped her pay at 10 times that of the lowest-paid City employee.

This time, the petitions represent different groups with different desires. One common thread between them is the local Alamo Group of the Sierra Club. The group’s members have been vocal watchdogs of the two utilities over the past 30 years.

The SAWS Accountability Act springs out of unsuccessful grassroots efforts to block SAWS’ Vista Ridge pipeline, which went into service earlier this year. Its supporters include local small-government advocates and rural organizers upset by heavy Vista Ridge pumping.

The CPS Energy group coalesced around San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which commits the city to carbon neutrality by 2050. Many of the environmental and social justice groups involved are also part of what CPS Energy calls its Environmental Stakeholders Group that meets quarterly with utility officials. Negotiations effectively broke down earlier this year over when CPS Energy should close its remaining coal units and the details of what those closures might cost customers.

“They’re separate,” Reinette King, a leader of the SAWS Act group, said of the two petitions. “They’ve been put together by separate organizations.”

Reinette King, a leader with the SAWS Act group responds to questions from reporters following a press conference at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Chamber leadership said both are equally distasteful.

However, the Recall CPS petition seems to have spurred the business response most intensely. The concern cited most urgently is the provision to remove the CPS Energy board, which Perez called “folly.”

“The reason they set up the construct that exists right now is to shield the board from politics,” Perez said.

The San Antonio chamber is funding the NOPE campaign, Perez said. If petitioners succeed in getting their amendments on the ballot in May, the campaign will shift to urging residents to vote no, he and other organizers said.

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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.