While the Killeen City Council was tabling the topic of the regional water district’s plans to take away the voting rights of residents Tuesday evening, the Belton council was voting 6-0 in favor of the proposal.
Belton joined Copperas Cove and Harker Heights in approving the two-part proposal of Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1, which would 1: Extend the water district’s boundaries to all areas it serves, 2: Remove all residents’ right to vote for the district’s board.
The portion that would remove voting rights raised concern.
At Tuesday’s Killeen City Council workshop, council members Debbie Nash-King and Shirley Fleming were vocal about their concerns. Both spoke of not having enough information about what was going on, and did not want to take away their constituents’ right to vote. Nash-King said she had requested documents from WCID No. 1 in order to learn more about the city’s legal binding to the organization, but said her requests had not been fulfilled.
The non-controversial portion of WCID No. 1’s plan is the boundary extension. Only a small portion of Killeen was eligible to vote last May in the only election the district has held in 24 years and the district was criticized for failing to update its boundaries in more than 30 years. One part of the proposed amendment to the district’s bylaws would update the boundaries to include all of its wholesale water customers, including Killeen, Copperas Cove, Belton, Harker Heights, Fort Hood, Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 3 and 439 Water Supply Corporation.
“For most of 63 years only a portion of Killeen has been our district boundary, while in fact, we have provided service to 7 entities since 1970,” general manager Ricky Garrett said in an emailed response to questions for the water district’s board president John Blankenship.
According to Garrett, representation of Fort Hood played a major role in the decision to draft the proposal, which passed with a 3 to 1 vote at the Dec. 19 meeting of the WCID No. 1 board of directors.
“With elections, the biggest economic driver in Killeen and the surrounding area, Fort Hood, would not have direct representation,” Garrett told the Herald on Thursday. The district has not previously given Fort Hood a representative on its board.
The part of the proposal raising concern is the removal of voting rights.
One of the questions has been: Why is all of this happening now?
Councilwoman Fleming, at Tuesday’s council meeting, said the proposal sounded like a rush deal.
“We can’t move forward on this, we don’t know enough about this,” Fleming said Thursday in a meeting with the Herald.
Garrett’s proposal went to the Killeen council Jan. 8, the same day the Texas legislative session began, and according to Fleming, the council was not aware a presentation on the proposal was coming until the agenda was released just days before.
So why the rush?
Former Killeen City Councilman Terry Clark thinks much of the haste comes from the district’s desire to push the proposal through the Legislature.
“If Killeen says ‘No, we won’t support this right now’, I think this whole thing dies,” Clark said.
Over the past week, the district has been lobbying the represented city councils in order to gain resolutions of support. In essence, these documents would be taken to the Texas Legislature as a way of backing the proposal and getting it to pass.
According to Andrea Morrow of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the water district needs a legislative change in order to amend the way it selects officials.
Garrett said, “I’m not conceding that, with further information, Killeen won’t decide to support this plan. We are open to providing information and hope to clear up any misconceptions.”
Questions directed from the Herald to Blankenship, were handed off to Garrett. Garrett told the Herald that Blankenship will be out of town and unreachable until Jan. 22, the same date WCID No. 1 is set to go back in front of the Killeen council.
According to Garrett, WCID does not have a charter that outlines the organization’s roles and responsibilities.
“Our legislative statute, which outlines some of our authorities is 9005 (Texas Special District Laws Code of the Texas Constitution) and is available on our website,” Garrett said. “Most of our governance is outlined in the Texas Water Code in chapters 49 and 51.”
While the water district’s website does offer links to several government codes and contracts, only the first page of the contract with Fort Hood is available.
The original Killeen contract from the 1950s is available online. Not found on the website are any of at least eight amendments, which add more debt to the city, that have been made since.
Here is what people are saying about the issue:
Killeen City Council
Shirley Fleming: I am totally against them having appointments. Anyone who controls the water controls everything. They are taking away the rights of the citizens. There needs to be more information put out there for the council members; I don’t want to be on the council and not know what is going on.
Steve Harris: In myself, I am opposed to doing away with elections. Still, I placed a poll on my political Facebook page and, inquired of my constituent’s opinion and I received a 99% disapproval rate of response (regarding WCID’s proposal). With the responses, I am still in a firm opposition to eliminating the elections. When the WCID meeting took place and this discussion was presented, a resident read to the board, my letter of intent to defy their change proposal. I do, though, support expanding the voting boundaries to current levels.
Butch Menking: I haven’t heard their presentation so I always reserve judgment until I hear both sides of any proposal. Keep in mind, regardless of what our council does or doesn’t do, WCID 1 will have to make their case to the state legislature to amend their governing statutes to change the number of directors and how they are seated. That being said, personally I feel any official that has the authority (regardless of current officials intentions) to tax citizens, should be subject directly to the election process. It is an administratively and financially burdensome process I know but it is that way by design because of the potential financial impact on citizens subject to their jurisdiction.
Mayor Jose Segarra: I think that we need more information on this issue before we can make a determination. There are still questions that need to be answered.
AnaLuisa Carrillo-Tapia, the district 17 deputy director of the League of United Latin American Citizens for Central Texas said she is concerned about the proposed loss of voting rights. “We are concerned about the decision, the thought they have that they’re going to eliminate a vote from the citizens when we haven’t voted in 24 years,” Carrillo-Tapia said. “When they said they’re going to get the voting boundaries expanded, we’re concerned whether appointments are going to be somebody who doesn’t know water.”
She said a LULAC-organized forum on the matter is in the works.
“Anything that has to do with taking the voters rights away is something that is concerning,” Carrillo-Tapia said.
Retired Col. Keith Sledd, executive director of the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance said, “We’re here to support Fort Hood and communities around Fort Hood. We are in favor of what benefits Fort Hood.”
Sledd said the term “installation resiliency” has been a key focus in the past year. He summarized the term by expressing the need for the military base to have all necessities in times of crisis. That includes electricity, internet service and water.
“Water is a key component of that, to drink, to preparing food, to washing vehicles,” Sledd said.
Since federal employees cannot run for political office, the water district’s proposal represents the best option for the post, according to Sledd.
“This is nothing against elections, but not everything has to have an election,” Sledd said. “With something that’s important to everyone, I would think you would always want experts with many years of experience.”
District 55 Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, said the water district recently contacted him and asked whether he would support the proposal to expand boundaries and do away with elections.
“I’m waiting and watching to see if they gather all the support,” Shine said.
Watching stories develop and newspaper articles come out has been Shine’s response, he said.
Shine said he doesn’t currently have an opinion on the matter, but will take appropriate action if necessary.
“I think this is a decision the board makes,” Shine said. “If they get all of the parties involved in their favor.”
Compiled by Herald reporters Matt Payne and Katelyn Robertson