The plan to strip Central Texas-area water customers of their voting rights is in motion — and residents from Copperas Cove to Nolanville should be concerned.
Representatives of the regional water district will be visiting city council meetings across the area this week. They’ll be seeking support for a resolution of support for the district’s proposal to expand its boundaries — and to discontinue elections for its board of directors.
The plan must win approval from the state Legislature before it can go into effect.
Our elected representatives should listen to the pitch with a critical ear — and a skeptical one, as well.
District administrator Ricky Garrett has already secured the support of the Copperas Cove City Council, which endorsed the resolution at Thursday’s meeting.
But the arguments council members heard were not entirely factual.
The council was told that expanding the district’s boundaries to include all entities included in Bell County Water Control and Improvement District’s service area is necessary — and it is. The existing boundaries only extend as far as Killeen’s 1984 city limits, whereas its customer base extends from Copperas Cove to Belton.
However, members were also told that the cost of conducting elections in the expanded service area would cost the city $150,000 a year — a number that district director Ricky Garrett couldn’t immediately source.
Obviously, the high election price tag was meant to be a scare tactic. Even if the number is accurate, it wouldn’t be an annual cost, since a representative for Cove would only be elected every three years. Also, the cost of an election would be shouldered by the district, not the city, as the city manager pointed out.
Further, if the election for water district representative were conducted concurrently with city elections, the cost would be reduced significantly and voter turnout would be higher as well.
Garrett also touted the advantage of having the city manager appoint a water district representative who could be replaced if that person didn’t work out. He also noted that elected board members might not know much about water issues, unlike an appointed member.
While that may be ideal from the city’s standpoint, it would do a disservice to district customers at-large. City-appointed directors would have an allegiance only to their respective municipalities, with a loss of objectivity being the likely result. Further, with no specified criteria for appointed directors, the appointment process could turn into a popularity contest or fall prey to influence peddling.
Bottom, line there are plenty of questions about how the appointed board would better represent the district’s customers — and why WCID-1 officials are in such a rush to make the change.
After all, May’s election of board members was the district’s first in 24 years. Previously, directors either were appointed to fill unexpired terms or ran for office unopposed.
Incumbent Allen Cloud was re-elected in May, but with the election of former Killeen City Councilman Richard “Dick” Young last spring — who last month voted against the proposed election change — the board saw incumbent Mike Miller replaced by a candidate who had been pushing for more transparency and accountability in the board’s operations.
Suddenly, after more than two decades, there’s a rush to change the system.
By doing away with elections, the district can protect its interests while expanding the board under the guise of greater representation — a selling point of particular interest to water customers in the outlying cities of Harker Heights, Nolanville, Copperas Cove and Belton.
But lawmakers in these communities should not be fooled.
Giving up the right to vote in exchange for board representation is not a good trade.
First of all, with an expanded board of nine members, each outlying city would be outvoted by Killeen, which is guaranteed three members under the proposal.
Second, there is a provision in the plan for adding members to represent future municipal entities, such as municipal utility districts, or MUDs. In that event, smaller entities would have their influence further diluted and face the prospect of being outvoted by developers’ representatives.
Third, Fort Hood would have a vote on an appointed board. And while Fort Hood is a longtime WCID-1 customer, giving a federal installation a vote on a regional water board sets a questionable precedent.
Fourth, WCID-1 has the ability to levy a tax, if the district chooses to. Without elections, district customers would have no way to fight proposed increases.
Finally, there is no language in the WCID-1 bylaws for term limits or recall of board members. As such, selection and accountability of directors would be totally stripped from area voters.
Garrett and other WCID-1 officials have been adamant that it would be too difficult and too costly to conduct elections with the expanded boundaries.
But that is coming from people who do not appear committed to making it happen.
Garrett already met with Killeen civic leaders and pitched the plan last month without first discussing it at a district meeting — and two days before it went to the full board for a vote.
District 54 state Rep.-elect Brad Buckley has been briefed on the plan — and while he supports expanding the boundaries, he has expressed reservations about eliminating elections.
The Legislature’s action is key, and if the measure is taken up in committee as a “local bill,” it can be sped through the full chamber without a record vote.
Obviously, the strategy of WCID-1 officials who endorse the plan involves soliciting resolutions of support from all of the entities served in the district’s customer base — and then presenting them to Buckley after the state Legislature convenes this week.
Already the district has secured support from Fort Hood’s garrison commander, as well as the Cove council. Presentations by two board members on the district’s plan are scheduled Tuesday at the Killeen City Council meeting and at the Harker Heights City Council meeting. Both begin at 5 p.m.
Notably, Garrett has asked Young not to attend the Killeen meeting, ostensibly in order to avoid an unannounced quorum of water board directors present. Board member Mitch Jacobs also was asked not go, for the same stated reason.
Buckley would be wise to listen to his constituents and not just to the WCID-1 reps before agreeing to carry the district’s proposal forward in Austin. Stripping voter rights is no way to reward constituents for their support.
Residents who want to be heard on this issue — especially those who voted in May’s water board election — are urged to attend Tuesday’s Killeen council meeting. Heights voters should show up at that city’s meeting as well.
It’s important to stand up for your right to determine who sits on the board of the body that controls your water and has area cities on the hook for a $50 million water treatment plant.
Most WCID-1 board members would like to see this issue resolved this year, but it may be better to wait until the next legislative session in 2021.
That would give the district time to come up with a better plan — one that redraws the boundaries while keeping customers’ voting rights intact.
Area residents should demand no less.