Ed Kelley’s final term on the CPS Energy board of trustees will end on Jan. 31, 2022.
Ed Kelley’s final term on the CPS Energy board of trustees will end on Jan. 31, 2022. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The news that Ed Kelley, one of San Antonio’s most prominent business and civic leaders, will step down as a trustee at CPS Energy next January after a decade of service will be especially welcomed by those who joined the Recall CPS campaign in 2020, and those who successfully pushed to establish the Rate Advisory Committee in 2021.

I believe strongly that the city and its utilities, the state, and the nation are responding far too slowly to the challenges of climate change, yet my reaction to the news is more complicated. I count Kelley as a friend, someone I came to know and admire through years of media leadership in the city. Since the rise of Donald Trump and his redirection of the Republican Party, however, Kelley and I have increasingly found ourselves at odds with one another. Even as the nation’s deep, seemingly irreconcilable political divisions harden and have come to strain our friendship, we’ve remained mutually respectful.

Columns I’ve written critical of the Republican leadership in Texas, in particular, have drawn Kelley’s wrath. He recently reached his limit with my opinion pieces and the San Antonio Report’s overall direction and withdrew as a supporting member.

He isn’t alone in his political views, of course, but the intensity of his dissatisfaction and his departure from our nonprofit’s supporting base affected me more than others who disagree with my opinions. It caused me to spend a good part of a family vacation pondering this question: Can those deeply invested in San Antonio and its future overcome the nation’s profound political divide to find common ground at home?

I return to San Antonio with no answers but a determination to engage readers in a conversation on the question. Kelley’s imminent departure from CPS Energy also gives me the opportunity to observe that unpaid public service in the eye of the media and public, especially in positions of influential governance, is thankless work at best. At age 81 and with a full decade of service at the public utility, it is likely time for Kelley to leave and certainly time for the public to thank him.

I’ve known Kelley for more than 30 years, including his long, successful run as president and CEO of USAA Real Estate Co. from 1988-2005. Many readers might not know that Kelley oversaw the development of La Cantera Hill Country Resort, The Shops at La Cantera, the two La Cantera golf courses, and Six Flags Fiesta Texas.

That success made him a recruitment target for every significant civic and nonprofit board in the city starting in the 1990s. Over the years Kelley chaired the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation and the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, has held a board seat at the San Antonio Area Foundation and the Goldsbury Foundation, and served as regional president of the Boy Scouts of America. I could use all my column space just to list the retired business executive’s long record of public service.

Many of my friends in the environmental community, whose climate change beliefs I share if not their political strategies, regard Kelley as a relic of the city’s old guard, an octogenarian who represents a time when a handful of civic-minded businessmen wielded outsized power in public affairs. His penchant for delivering sharply worded dismissals of individuals and initiatives he opposes has made him an easy target.

What few people appreciate is that Kelley is no business elite, indifferent to the working class ratepayers served by CPS Energy. He has a firsthand understanding of the city’s poverty and the role the utility and other public entities play in people’s lives.

Kelley grew up on the city’s long-neglected South Side, attended Harlandale High School, and then enrolled at San Antonio College. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard and went on to earn an undergraduate business degree at St. Mary’s University and a master’s in business administration from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

His success was far from guaranteed and it was hard-earned. So are his convictions, no matter how out of step some of them may be with my generation and those younger.

CPS Energy, of course, faces many issues not of Kelley’s making that his replacement on the board will inherit, starting with the unbudgeted $1 billion in energy costs stemming from the severe winter storm in February. Convincing the utility’s management to change the corporate culture and become more transparent and responsive to ratepayers and community organizations is another major challenge. And the biggest one of all is recognizing that we are not moving quickly enough from a fossil fuel economy to a more sustainable model.

Kelley, of course, would debate me on that last paragraph, and offer alternative paths forward. In all likelihood, neither one of us would persuade the other of our views, but the conversation would be civil and respectful. I’d argue my views knowing I enjoy extraordinary privilege as a journalist with a platform, but also with an equal appreciation for Kelley and his decades of selfless service in this city.

That is what I will miss when Kelley’s term concludes come January.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.