SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente
SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

As the coronavirus crisis unfolds, San Antonio Water System leaders gave the utility’s top executive additional authority to spend more money and negotiate deals without up-front board approval.

During their April meeting by teleconference Tuesday, SAWS trustees unanimously voted to extend President and CEO Robert Puente’s authority to execute contracts, make contract amendments, and make expenditures to keep the utility’s water and sewer system functioning, all without a prior board vote.

“I don’t take this responsibility lightly,” said Puente, a former Texas House natural resources committee chair who has headed SAWS since 2008, during the meeting. “In fact, I hope I don’t need to exercise this authority.”

Board members at first considered not setting a time limit on these extra powers. However, in response to questioning by Trustee Amy Hardberger, they voted instead for the powers to be in place until SAWS’ next board meeting, currently scheduled for May 5.

When Hardberger asked why the extra leeway is necessary, Puente said it would help contractors start work more quickly if, for example, a major water or sewer line were to break during the pandemic.

“Sometimes they’re worried about actually getting paid,” Puente said of contractors who work for SAWS. “This, in effect, would allow them to start work immediately and not have to worry about getting paid.”

Puente added that all local and state procurement regulations would still apply, so “there are a lot of checks and balances in there already.”

Puente added that he would confer with SAWS Chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. ahead of any emergency decisions and call other board members to explain his decisions. He also said SAWS would post notices of all decisions made under the emergency provision on social media and in news releases.

“I want to assure everyone out there that we will have full transparency,” Guerra said at the meeting. “We hope that we don’t have to use this method, if it’s voted upon, unless it’s an extreme, important emergency that has to be dealt with immediately.”

However, some questioned why the utility’s normal procedures aren’t sufficient.

“To me, it’s just extraordinary,” said Terry Burns, chair of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club. “They proved this morning that they could have a meeting anytime basically online or on the phone and deal with issues. So why they felt the need to do this completely escapes me.”

The move comes as SAWS adapts to the spread of the virus, which has infected a confirmed 456 Bexar County residents and killed 18 over the past month. As cases began ratcheting up in San Antonio, SAWS mandated remote work for some of its employees and, its sister utility CPS Energy, stopped disconnecting customers for lack of payment.

Over the past few weeks, SAWS has moved half of its workforce of 1,700 to working from home, Puente told board members on Tuesday. SAWS employees whose work is tied to a certain location have been given masks and urged to stand at least six feet apart, he said.

All of SAWS’ customer service department is now working remotely, Puente said, and are still responding to approximately 2,100 phone calls per weekday. The utility’s meter readers continue to check an average of around 25,000 meters per weekday, he said.

“I have never been more proud of our staff in how this entire pandemic has been handled,” Guerra said at the meeting.

Other changes include a suspension of the SAWS Rate Advisory Committee (RAC), the group of volunteers that has met publicly twice a month since September to study SAWS’ water and sewer rates and advise the utility on a fair way of setting them over the next five years. SAWS has canceled the RAC’s two April meetings and has not yet set a date for the next.

However, Puente said that SAWS construction projects would continue, including the work needed to accept water from the Vista Ridge pipeline. Vista Ridge is set to begin delivering up to 16.3 billion gallons per year from underground aquifers east of Austin, more than 140 miles from San Antonio.

On Tuesday, the SAWS board approved the sixth amendment to the Vista Ridge contract, this time slightly expanding the range of a water quality requirement meant to ensure the water flowing through Vista Ridge does not corrode pipes or cause scale to build up.

Water has been flowing through the pipeline since at least January for testing, and a SAWS memo indicates the utility is sticking to its schedule to begin paying for the water on April 15.

The final phase has renewed opposition among groups that have been organizing against the utility’s leadership for the past several months.

The SAWS Accountability Act Political Action Committee is pushing for a City charter amendment on the May 2021 ballot that would reduce Puente’s pay, set firm term limits on SAWS board members, and require an audit of its controversial Vista Ridge project, among others.

Stan Mitchell, a local government watchdog and one of the PAC members, said San Antonio City Council has overseen a “breathtaking transfer of power from City Council” to SAWS over the Vista Ridge project. An expansion of Puente’s role will only further consolidate power to one person, Mitchell argued.

“That to me is a violation of everything that I learned in school about the principles of representative government,” Mitchell said.

Most board members, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, expressed support for giving Puente additional flexibility.

“These are extraordinary circumstances and situations that are changing almost by the minute,” SAWS Trustee David McGee said during the meeting. “So I’m completely in favor of this. We’ve got to keep our system going. None of us can contemplate the list of things that will be changing in the next few weeks that need immediate attention for the health and safety of our community.”

At the meeting, Guerra compared the emergency authority for Puente to the authority the CPS Energy board gave to President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams at that utility’s March 30 meeting.

However, that authority was narrowly tailored. It only gave Gold-Williams permission to finalize sales of CPS Energy’s downtown properties, including its current headquarters. Despite multiple Rivard Report requests, CPS Energy officials have refused to disclose potential buyers for the properties.

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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.