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Chamber Of Commerce Alleges That Activists’ Petitions For ‘Public Control’ Of CPS, SAWS Are Deceptive

Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez stands near signs asking residents not to support petition campaigns targeting CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System.

The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce is asking residents not to sign petitions that would affect the operations of CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System.

The two separate petitions — the Recall CPS and SAWS Accountability Act — would amend the city charter and need 20,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot for the May 2021 municipal election. Both petitions propose multiple reorganizations to both city-owned utilities. The chamber alleges the petitions are misguiding residents.

The petitions call for a multitude of changes over the operations and oversight of the utilities. Changes include making the utility a city department; shutting down the city’s coal-fired power plant by 2030; replacing the board of trustees with the City Council and mayor; and requiring the City Council to set the salary of the CPS Energy president and CEO.

The Chamber’s messaging said the petitions aim to dismantle the power and water utilities, alleging that both petitions use deceptive messaging and misinformation. Chamber President Richard Perez said the Chamber and business community are funding the ads and political signs to stand up for the utilities.

“SAWS and CPS Energy have been important economic development tools for the City of San Antonio and Bexar County that has literally helped us bring thousands of good-paying jobs, so we need to protect that asset,” Perez said.

Several climate activists appeared on an episode of “The Source” in August to discuss their petitions for transparency and accountability within CPS and SAWS.

“It’s been 30 years since everyone was alerted to this. The public knows about it. They’re frustrated that there’s nothing that can be done, and this is something that can be done,” said Darby Riley, lawyer and longtime member of the Alamo Sierra Club, told “The Source.”

He added, “We can promote reduction in fossil fuel emissions quickly, we can reduce high rates of asthma, we can promote efficiency of energy, promote rate equity, and transparency and accountability to our biggest asset. The city’s biggest asset is this utility, which hides the money. It pays 13% to the city. Where’s the rest of the money? How do they use that? Why is (City) Council not overseeing this asset?”

Dee Dee Belmares, a lead organizer of the Recall CPS petition, also appeared on the segment.

“What (CPS Energy is) doing makes sense to the business community, sure. But it doesn’t make sense for humanity, in that the continued use of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas is driving the climate crisis. And the climate crisis affects all of us, but we know that it’s disproportionately affecting the working-class community, the poor, Black and Brown communities, the elderly,” Belmares told “The Source” in late August.

The SAWS Accountability Act petition wants similar changes, but its goals include audits on large projects and instituting a salary and term limit for the SAWS president and CEO, among other proposals regarding board member term limits.

The Chamber’s opposition can be seen in political-style signs with the acronym NOPE. The ‘nope’ stands for ‘No Petition,’ Perez said.

Perez was joined by Marina Gonzales, President of the Hispanic Chamber, and Cristina Aldrete, President of the North Chamber, in a united front against the petition drives on Wednesday.

“We have well-run utilities, and we must remain true to that proven process that’s given us our very best utilities in our city for our businesses and our families,” Gonzales said. “Or as the old saying goes, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

SAWS and CPS Energy are municipally owned and the revenues they produce supplement the City of San Antonio’s general fund each year. The board members for each are selected through different processes and confirmed via approval from the San Antonio City Council.

Reinette King, one of the petition drive’s organizers, was present at the chamber’s press conference to offer counter points of the Chamber’s claims.

“We don’t have any intention of dismantling SAWS. What we want is more accountability for the citizens. We want a full independent $3 billion audit, and I think that the chamber should be ashamed of themselves for being afraid to have an independent audit of $3 billion contract,” King said of the current Vista Ridge Pipeline project

It is unclear how many signatures have been gathered, but the 20,000 verified signatures must be San Antonio residents. There’s a 180-day time limit to gather that number of signatures; the deadline is near the end of December.

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