A group of petitioners focused on reforming the San Antonio Water System are fighting back in court against a SAWS attempt to invalidate the petition.

In a hearing Monday in 345th Civil District Court in Travis County, attorneys representing the SAWS Accountability Act petitioners argued that the water and sewer utility is trying to kill the petition drive before they can even finish collecting the 20,000 signatures they need to put the issue before San Antonio voters on the May ballot.

“We believe this is politics by stealth in an effort to deny citizens the right to sign and submit a petition to this city to allow voters to decide on this charter amendment,” said James Murphy, an attorney representing Stanley Mitchell, treasurer of the SAWS Accountability Act Political Action Committee.

The petitioners are a loosely organized coalition of environmentalists, conservative government watchdogs, and rural organizers opposed to SAWS’ Vista Ridge pipeline. They want voters to amend the City’s charter with stricter rules for SAWS.

If adopted, the amendment would cap the SAWS CEO’s pay at 10 times that of the lowest-paid SAWS employee, ban lobbying by SAWS, enforce existing term limits for SAWS board members, and require an independent audit of all projects costing $1 billion or more.

SAWS lawyers have argued the proposals threaten the security of 39 outstanding public securities, made up of revenue bonds and commercial paper notes, that add up to more than $3.2 billion in debt obligations.

In Monday’s hearing, SAWS outside counsel Michael O’Donnell said the utility’s credit ratings are “very much at risk based upon the fact that there is this charter petition that has illegal propositions in it and would cause the City to breach its long-term contractual commitments to the bondholders.

“Credit ratings agencies follow these matters closely, and this procedure allows the court to bring clarity to it and validate the provisions of those bonds.”

After listening to both sides discuss how much time they would need to make arguments and present evidence, Judge Jan Soifer ended the hearing without issuing a ruling. As of 2 p.m., Soifer had not scheduled additional hearings or a trial date, according to court records.

SAWS initiated the proceeding with a Dec. 10 filing under Chapter 1205 of the Texas Government Code. The law allows a public entity that issues debt to seek a judge’s opinion on the “legality and validity” of its securities.

In a Monday filing, the Save Our Springs Alliance asked the court to dismiss SAWS’ request for lack of jurisdiction, among other pleadings. Bill Bunch, attorney and executive director of the alliance, pointed out that the petitioners are still gathering signatures, the first of several hurdles before the issue would even come before San Antonio voters.

“This action is really seeking to invalidate a statutorily and constitutionally guaranteed right of the citizens of San Antonio to petition for charter amendment,” Bunch said, adding that the items in the SAWS Accountability Act have “absolutely nothing to do with the 39 sets of bonds that are on the table.”

Bunch represents two of the SAWS Accountability Act leaders: Reinette King, a conservative open-government activist and former Zoning Commission member, and Terry Burns, chair of the San Antonio chapter of the Sierra Club.

Bunch did not immediately respond Monday to an emailed question about why Save Our Springs, an Austin environmental nonprofit, got involved in the issue.

Murphy, a former staff attorney with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and one of SAWS’ most strident critics, also filed a similar plea to the jurisdiction asking that the case be dismissed.

The Texas Attorney General’s office is also a party in the case, though Assistant Attorney General William Sumner Macdaniel stressed during the hearing that his office is not “aligned” with SAWS or the anti-SAWS coalition.

“We are more in a third-party capacity to raise objections and concerns to the court and allow the parties to have their day in court,” Macdaniel said.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

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