BROWNSVILLE, Texas (ValleyCentral) — It’s official: The lights will be staying on in Brownsville.

In a series of special meetings Monday and Tuesday, the Brownsville City Commission unanimously approved a freeze of electric disconnections, late fees and penalties coming from the Brownsville Public Utility Board. The measure safeguards BPUB electric customers facing difficulties in making electric payments.

The freeze should take immediate effect, barring BPUB from cutting power to homes through Feb.28, 2023. The ordinance also prevents BPUB from charging late fees or charges for delinquent payments during the freeze.

BPUB officials were already operating as if the disconnection freeze was in effect, the commission was told.

On Tuesday, a BPUB official told city commissioners that any electric disconnections—not at the request of a BPUB customer—would be only be permitted because of electrical problems or because of tampering.

City rolls back electric rates

Residents have been faced with significantly higher electric bills attributed to increases in natural gas prices in recent months.

On Monday, the city commission voted to approve a second reading of an ordinance to speed up reductions to BPUB’s electric rate. The 11% rollback, combined with an 11% cut already in place, is intended to slash electric rates by 22% total. That would restore rates to what consumers paid before BPUB’s failed $188 million power plant project.

These rate cuts will be effective Dec. 1, rather than the scheduled date of May 3, 2023.

BPUB electric consumers saw their electric payments increased by 41.5% over four years to fund the failed power plant deal, which has been heavily scrutinized in recent weeks following the release of a forensic audit by the city on Oct. 5.

A call to remove more BPUB officials

The outcry continued in public comments Monday as a residents continued to criticize BPUB and the failed power plant project.

“The current BPUB board has failed us in every aspect so far regarding Tenaska and the aftermath. You and the commissioners are ultimately responsible. In your words, they are an extension of you,” Brownsville resident Susan Ruvalcaba said.

Ruvalcaba urged city commissioners to vote to remove Chair Sandra A. Saenz from the BPUB Board of Directors.

“[Saenz], as I see it, should have never been appointed,” Ruvalcaba said. “Why? Well, she was a longtime legal secretary for [former Brownsville Mayor Tony] Martinez. She became his mayoral secretary while he served in office and his business partner. That screams conflict.

“Still to this day a tight band between them exists. This conflict impedes her decision-making as a board member. Ex-mayor Martinez is mentioned in a negative light 26 times in this forensic report—words like ‘heavily involved,’ ‘influential,’ ‘not forthcoming,’ ‘false pretenses.'”

In response to the critical forensic audit, BPUB on Oct. 17 voted unanimously to place its CEO John Bruciak on administrative leave with pay for 60 days.

“Mayor Martinez should be held just as accountable because he appears to hold equal responsibility,” Ruvalcaba said. “Hence, [Saenz], his longtime employee, friend and business partner can’t possibly be expected to make fair decisions regarding Bruciak when her confidant Martinez is equally implicated. They were a tag team in a sense.”

Possible amendments to the city charter

On Monday, city commissioners appointed members to form a new charter review committee.

City leaders want to amend the city charter in particular to make changes related to the Brownsville Public Utilities Board. Changes to a city charter must be made through an election.

To meet the required timeline for a charter amendment election in May 2023, the city would need to appoint a charter review committee by Oct. 24 or Nov. 1 this year. Charter review committee would traditionally have seven members.

“A city charter cannot be amended more often than every two years,” the board was told Monday in a presentation by the city attorney’s office, which provided a timeline for a possible charter review.