San Antonio Water System President and CEO Robert Puente will have his performance and pay evaluated by independent consultants, a practice already in place at San Antonio’s other municipally owned utility.

At its February meeting Tuesday, the SAWS board approved agreements with consultants ScottMadden and Paradox Compensation Advisors to examine Puente’s performance and pay relative to other water and sewer utilities.

Board members want to “make sure we had comprehensive data to compare SAWS, our performance, and our CEO’s performance to other water utilities across the country,” trustee David McGee said. “We don’t have the tools internally to be able to access that data, and so we decided to go out and ask an outside consultant to help with that.”

The contracts combined will cost the utility $193,000 over three years.

Under the new process, ScottMadden “will be principally involved in helping us refine alignment of our strategic plan to the CEO’s performance metrics” in an annual evaluation, McGee said.

Paradox Compensation Advisors will compare Puente’s salary to those of other top water officials, both public and private, McGee said.

“They have access, through all of their industry contacts, to information we just wouldn’t have on our own,” he explained.

SAWS is a municipally owned water and wastewater utility serving roughly 1.8 million customers in the San Antonio area. Puente, who represented San Antonio as a Democrat in the Texas Legislature and served as chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, officially took the top spot at SAWS in 2008.

Of San Antonio’s top three local government employees – CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and Puente – only Gold-Williams has been undergoing annual third-party performance evaluations, also conducted by ScottMadden.

After San Antonio City Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) publicly questioned Sculley’s review process, a majority of City Council members said they would support a more formal annual performance evaluation of Sculley, the City’s highest-paid employee.

For the past 10 years, members of the SAWS board have been conducting Puente’s annual review. Since 2008, his salary has risen from $275,000 to $468,194.40 starting Jan. 1.

The SAWS board has also often given Puente annual bonuses, including the most recent of $99,285.71 for his work in 2016. The board has not yet awarded Puente a bonus for 2017.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg first publicly raised the issue last August when he cast the lone no vote on the bonus and a 5 percent raise for Puente.

Soon thereafter, the board set up a compensation task force that included McGee, president and CEO of Amegy Bank; retired educator Pat Merritt; and Louis Rowe, president and CEO of engineering firm Goetting & Associates Inc.

Asked if the third-party review would have happened without Nirenberg pressing the issue, McGee said, “It would have happened. This was an item that’s been under discussion for the better part of a year.”

He later added: “We had been discussing this for a while, but the mayor came in and was very supportive of what we had already been talking about.”

Nirenberg told the Rivard Report that the third-party evaluation is about improving public confidence in the performance and pay of SAWS’ top executive.

“A professionalized set of metrics and a standardized compensation survey that’s updated regularly is the way we can do that,” he said.

Nirenberg said McGee “is attuned to these kinds of issues,” and the board would have “eventually gotten to this place.

“But for my two cents, this needed to get done and needed to get done now, and I’m very pleased that the board agrees,” he added.

The SAWS board is currently reviewing Puente’s performance in 2017. By the fourth quarter of this year, the board will have new performance metrics and goals for 2018 in place, “which the consultant will also then help us evaluate,” McGee said.

“The 2019 goals will be completely new and established through a process of comparing ourselves across the industry,” he said. “We can go from good to great by doing that.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He serves as the assistant manager of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.