San Antonio Water System President and CEO Robert Puente turned down a $96,500 bonus for his work in 2017.

At the SAWS board of trustees’ March meeting on Tuesday, Puente declined to accept the offered award, though he did accept a 1 percent merit raise on top of his current salary of $468,194.40. The board offered him the raise in addition to the bonus.

Puente said he declined the award after his compensation became a “distraction” during community meetings and other events last year. At the time, SAWS was making the case for raising customers’ bills for two years to help pay for improvements to its network of water and sewer pipes.

“When we were out there, out in the community, asking for a rate increase, too often when we wanted to talk about infrastructure, we were asked about my salary, asked about my bonus,” he told the board Tuesday.

Puente’s decision drew praise from San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who cited SAWS’ lack of third-party review for its top staffer when he cast the lone no vote on Puente’s bonus and salary last year.

“I want to commend you for listening to the comments of my colleagues but also to the general public as you go about this work,” he said.

District 6 Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who has been vocal on the issue of city executive pay, also praised Puente in a prepared statement.

“From day one, I have called into question these large bonuses on behalf of the residents who reached out to let me know they felt this was dead wrong,” Brockhouse said. “I applaud Robert for listening and leading on this issue.”

Last year was also Puente’s final year of being exclusively evaluated by the SAWS board of trustees. Earlier this year, the board approved agreements with consultants ScottMadden and Paradox Compensation Advisors to compare Puente’s pay and performance to those of other water and sewer utility leaders.

By the fourth quarter of this year, Puente will have new performance metrics and goals in place for 2018, which ScottMadden will help the utility’s board use to grade Puente, SAWS trustee David McGee has said. The 2019 goals will be new and developed with an eye toward the rest of the industry.

The third-party review would bring Puente more in line with Paula Gold-Williams, his counterpart at CPS Energy, which already has such a performance review in place. City Manager Sheryl Sculley, whose pay is the third-highest among municipal employees, currently does not have a formal performance evaluation. But following calls to change that, the City in February launched a search for third-party firms that will develop performance metrics and salary analysis for appointed City employees.

The SAWS board has offered Puente a similar bonus over the past few years, including a $99,285.71 bonus for his work in 2016.

The 2017 bonus was to be for SAWS’ completion of its H2Oaks desalination plant, the utility’s 2017 water management plan, navigating changes to an integration pipeline as part of SAWS’ Vista Ridge pipeline, and raising the utility’s minimum wage to $14.50, SAWS Board Chair Heriberto “Berto” Guerra Jr. said.

“Robert had an excellent year and continues to be an asset and advocate for our community,” Guerra said.

Guerra said that Puente scored 96.5 out of 100 points on his evaluation for 2017. That seems to correspond to $96,500.

But when asked whether Puente was graded on a 1-point-equals-$1000 scale, McGee, who leads the board’s compensation committee, said, “There’s not really a formula for it.”

Puente has previously refused salary increases and bonuses in 2009 and 2010. On Tuesday, he said he had done so in those years because no other SAWS employees got pay raises at that time and he wanted to show support for them.

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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.