Bexar Metal Jacket

Illustration by Chuck Kerr.
Bring up House Bill 1565, Democratic Representative Robert Puente’s first attempt this legislative session to dismantle the Bexar Metropolitan Water District, and veteran water-watcher and environmentalist Annalisa Peace snickers.

“That one’s really hilarious,” says Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance. “We don’t really have a stake in it, you know? It’s just amusing, the whole thing.”

If not the consummate water guardian, then who? The 64-year-old utility claims to serve more than 80,000 residential and commercial accounts, which translates into water for 240,000 people in four counties. It’s these quarter-million drinkers and bathers and irrigators that Puente says he’s serving in this pissing contest, and he’s assembled an impressive array of supersoakers: San Antonio councilpeople Richard Perez and Kevin Wolff, County Judge Nelson Wolff, the Greater San Antonio Builders Association, the Real Estate Council of San Antonio, and the Quintana Neighborhood Association.

“`Bexar Met` has known for at least six years that I’ve been looking over their shoulder, riding them, and they repeatedly cannot fix their problems, all the way from true water issues to management issues to elections issues,” Puente said. “They’re too broken to fix.”

Puente’s aggressiveness, of course, is compounded by his Craddick-granted chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Committee: If Puente can’t pass a water bill primarily affecting his home county, he’s flushed away his leadership crediblity.

In his vigilance, however, Puente planted the seed of his own downfall: a voting-rights quandary.

The League of United Latin American Citizens announced in March that they’d stand against Puente, arguing that H.B. 1565 would betray Latino voters, who LULAC says elect their preference in Bexar Met races 72 percent of the time, and predictably less so under Puente’s plan to hand it over to the Bexar County Commissioners Court. It’s notable, though, that in the May election, both new board members were elected with less than 1,000 votes combined.

LULAC threatened a lawsuit, and according to Express-News columnist (and water nymph) Jaime Castillo, the gambit succeeded: Senate Democrats were loath to take up a cause with a voting-rights case against it, and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst wasn’t thrilled with the potential legal costs. H.B.1565 passed late Monday night adjusted so that Bexar Met’s Board will remain in control, though they will face strict oversight from the legislature and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Failure to meet new demands, Puente said, could result in the utility being placed under receivership.

So, what exactly is funny, Annalisa?

In terms of comedy, Bexar Met lends itself to the visual vocabulary of the comic strip, particularly the brawlers’ dust cloud: think Beetle Bailey versus Sarge. And as the Bexar Met issue rolled around the state — across Bexar, Atascosa, Comal, and Medina counties, speeding towards Austin — it scooped up pugilists like a game of Playstation Katamari.

The fracas is certainly less a war of principles than it is a clash of personalities, a maelstrom of ad-hominem attacks and personal vendettas.

Here are some of the melees we spotted from the sidelines:

Connolly vs. Castillo

In late March, columnist Jaime Castillo busted Bexar Met’s hired PR cannon T.J. Connolly for funnelling campaign money to board candidates. Connolly later ranted against Castillo to Editor R.G. Griffing alleging bias: Castillo’s wife works at the San Antonio Water System, which Connolly believes stands to benefit from a Bexar Met takeover.

Griffing went public with the information, and Castillo cut Connolly off, saying via email, “No offense, but the next time you want to call me, please don’t. Your scorched-earth brand of public relations is no longer worth the risk.” Connolly apologized, also electronically, lamenting, “Your columns have been fair. I vented when and to someone I shouldn’t have.”

A month passed, and Castillo published a second piece on Connolly’s political antics. Connolly revoked his apology with the note, “Gloves off. Game on.”

Winner: Castillo. Last week, Connolly handed Bexar Met his letter of resignation. He emailed Castillo a copy.            

Wolff(s) vs. Villarreal

District 9 City Councilman Kevin Wolff began his testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee with a cathartic confession: He admitted his Republican Party affiliation to prove he wasn’t his father’s son, even though he was supporting a bill that would give his dad, County Judge Nelson Wolff, control of Bexar Met.

Then the younger Wolff grumbled about Bexar Met, touching lightly on digestive troubles allegedly suffered by County Commissioner Lyle Larson’s Bexar-Met water-lapping dog before hitting the real meat: His Bexar Met constituents pay about “125 to 175 percent” higher rates than their SAWS-subscribing neighbors. Wolff said he wrote a letter to Bexar Met director Gil Olivares articulating his frustrations, and in return received a notice that Board President Victor Villarreal had forwarded the letter to the attorney general’s office as evidence of an Open Meetings Act violation.

Winner: Kevin Wolff. AG Greg Abbott’s office told the Current they never received such a letter, and were not interested in investigating it either.

Pfeiffer vs. Wenger

Bexar Met board member Lesley Wenger’s known for being the sole questioning voice at the table, which cost her the vice-presidency in January. While she opposed the dissolution of the board, she did support Senator Carlos Uresti’s proposal for close legislative oversight (which passed late Monday night). She often feels straight-up lied-to by Bexar Met employees, she told the Current.

Wenger said as much during before the Senate committee (“sheer incompetence,” she said), where she sat on the same panel as Bexar Met consumer-constituent Lisa Pfeiffer, who earned applause with her raucous let-our-votes-count defense of the water board. A week later at the Bexar Met board meeting, Pfeiffer used the public-comment period to rip into Wenger personally for being a turncoat.

Board President Villarreal prevented Wenger from responding. Wenger said she suspects Pfeiffer is Villarreal’s pawn.

Winner: Tie. At session’s end Wenger got oversight, but pawn or not, by speaking out Pfeiffer publicly positioned herself for board candidacy.


• • • • • •  •


Your moment of Zen:

It’s not all all-out-war in the water world: Last week the San Antonio Parks Foundation announced they’ll be refilling the ponds at the Japanese Tea Garden. The water will be provided by SAWS. 


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