After years of controversy, the Agua Special Utility District Board of Directors election is in full gear with two slates going head-to-head at the chance to form the majority of the seven-member board.
Following a criminal investigation, severance payments, large filing fee attempts, and several transparency complaints, voters in western Hidalgo County now have the choice of picking who will serve as an Agua SUD director in the cities of Mission, La Joya, Peñitas, and Sullivan City.
It is an important election because Agua SUD provides water and sewer services to more than 14,500 customers.
But who’s running?
The election pits team AGUA SUD F1RST vs. team AGUA SUD.
Among the candidates, in Mission, 35-year-old incumbent Cesar Rodriguez is running on team AGUA SUD F1RST
Rodriguez works for La Joya ISD as a compliance officer.
“They will go out and vote because they know me, they’re my neighbors, they’re my friends,” said Rodriguez. “I’m a real down-to-earth person and that’s what they want. As far as them going out to vote for me, they will.”
Rodriguez is pitted against his neighbor and friend, 33-year-old Eric Sanchez from team AGUA SUD, who owns his own safety company and says he is running after hearing his residents’ complaints continue.
“I just thought it was time for change, for somebody in our area to step up and make a change,” said Sanchez.
Running in Peñitas is born-and-raised 31-year-old Lloyd Loya on team AGUA SUD F1RST. Loya currently sits on the utility board and also works for La Joya ISD as an energy director.
“That’s why I’m running for this position, so Peñitas can have a voice,” said Loya. “Someone that they can trust, someone who has Peñitas in their heart and wouldn’t do anything to hurt the city and all I want is for the city to prosper and to grow.”
Loya also raved about the moves the board has made, like lowering impact fees, price of meters, and plans to implement smart meters for residents.
His challenger is newcomer 37-year-old Pharr Police Sgt. Juan Gonzalez on team AGUA SUD, who tells CBS 4 at a meet-and-greet rally — off camera — that he is running to give voters other options.
Gonzalez said that with his slate “…There is no conflict of interest with the school district and it’s the best option to have a board that is neutral…”
“This whole controversy started when the school board of La Joya ISD was very much involved in electing four employees from the La Joya ISD to be the board members for the AGUA board,” said Senator Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa.
Essentially, elected board members from two different taxing entities were hiring each other’s board members as employees.
It’s a move that drew Hinojosa to create Senate Bill 814 in 2017 to address the cronyism concerns at the utility district, but the district found a loop hole for two affected employees before the bill passed.
“As a consequence of the bill, they created an employment contract— that didn’t exist before— and they took board members also from La Joya ISD and left them with a severance pay of almost half a million dollars of tax payer money,” said Hinojosa.
Another reason why Senator Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa is keeping a close eye on this year’s election: He recently sent a letter asking the Secretary of State to appoint an inspector to oversee operations at the polls.
“There was concern among some of the candidates that there would be some issues in terms of some of the voters and campaign workers not complying with the law and rules in place,” added Hinojosa.
Over in La Joya, team AGUA SUD’s candidate, 61-year-old J.J Luna wants to bring change.
“I just want to see politics out of it,” said Luna. “I mean, people shouldn’t be afraid to go to the polls, people should not be intimidated because they are seen helping anyone out.”
Luna works as a union organizer for the La Joya American Federation of Teachers. He tells CBS 4 that he almost didn’t run when the board attempted to enact a $1,000 filing fee to run for the board.
“It’s going back to the 60’s, whenever the poll tax was in place,” said Luna. “Trying to keep people from voting, from getting involved in the political system and those are things that should not be happening now-a-days.”
The board attempted to add the filing fee in order to find ways to offset the cost of running the $30,000 election, saying they wanted to ensure candidates were serious about running.
Something that Hinojosa made sure wasn’t passed, calling it ‘excessive’.
Luna is running against team AGUA SUD F1RST candidate Adolfo Arriaga.
CBS 4 attempted to speak to Arriaga at the slate’s meet-and-greet rally on August 12, however, Arriaga refused to speak on and off camera regarding his decision to run and gave no reason for the refusal.
At the rally, CBS 4 received the same response from team AGUA SUD F1RST candidate Ivan Sandoval running in Sullivan City.
His opponent is 33-year-old construction worker Julian Peña.
“To try and fix my city, Sullivan city. It’s for my people, it’s not about me,” said Peña. “It’s just a disaster over there.”
As for the investigation against the utility district, a subpoena obtained by CBS 4 details it is connected to the severance payments paid to two of the district’s former employees.
“I don’t know any of the details, but I know that there is a grand jury looking at the evidence that was submitted, requested by subpoena,” added Hinojosa.
The subpoena requests copies of all items relating to the employment and discharge of the employees including: Severance settlement packages, audio and video documents / records, as well as documents of closed sessions of the board and more.
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