You Don't Miss Your Water

By Gilbert Garcia

It isn't easy being a member of the BexarMet board of directors. They've endured scandals, public derision, and attempts by the lege to abolish them altogether.

So it's little surprise that this morning's gathering, largely devoted to the future of the county water board, felt less like a public-utility meeting than a testy group-therapy session.

After receiving a presentation from the point men for their lobbyist team â?? former Councilman Bobby Perez and former Texas Deputy Secretary of State Luis Saenz â?? board members asked a few obligatory questions about the recent legislative session, and then went on extended rants about how misunderstood and underappreciated they feel, while Perez and Saenz politely nodded.

"I'm trying to understand what they're seeing," said Debra Eaton, the board's vice president, about BexarMet's many critics. Insisting that the utility was providing ratepayers with high-quality water at a reasonable price, she called out politicians who've attacked the board: "I just want to make sure that they're concerned about their constituents and not trying to further their political careers by using BexarMet as a stepping stone."

To most of the board members, BexarMet's problems are all about perception, about improprieties that happened years ago, before many of them joined the board But the sense that they must justify their own existence has led to a defiant, defensive attitude among several board members, and hard feelings within the board.

When Blanche Atkinson called the board "dysfunctional" and supported the idea of the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality taking a conservator's oversight role for BexarMet (an approach favored by Reps. David Leibowitz and Trey Martinez Fischer), she incurred the wrath of District 6's Lesley Wenger, who agreed with Eaton that the board is doing just fine and doesn't need any more outside interference. Things got so unpleasant that Wenger and Atikinson even argued about how many years Atkinson has been on the board (Atkinson said it was four years, but Wenger correctly noted that it's been only two years).

When it came time to vote on approving the TCEQ conservatorship plan, Wenger moved to table the vote, and Andy Carr seconded. Board President Guadalupe Lopez, who was speaking at the time, told Wenger she was out of order. A procedural free-for-all ensued, with Carr ultimately rescinding his second.

The confusion persisted until the board was assured that a "yes" vote would merely enable discussions to begin between BexarMet staff and TCEQ on a formula for working together. That was too much for Wenger, but with Eaton leaving the meeting early ("I'm having trouble holding food down," she announced to Perez and Saenz early in the meeting), Wenger cast the lone opposing vote. Negotiations will now begin on a conservatorship plan between TCEQ and BexarMet. It might be the only path to survival for the public utility, but it should make for a very bumpy ride.


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