The regional water district’s board of directors Wednesday approved a plan to expand the district’s boundaries but do away with elections of board members. The vote was 3 to 1, with Richard “Dick” Young, the newest board member, voting in dissent.
But even before the formal vote was taken last week, some members were pitching the draft proposal to area civic leaders and elected representatives in an effort to gain support — and that’s a problem.
By all appearances, the proposal was basically a done deal even before the board vote took place — an impression further magnified by the fact that members of the public weren’t given the opportunity to register their dissatisfaction with the plan during last week’s meeting of the Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 board of directors.
Considering the boundary and election changes were first discussed by the full board just five days before the draft proposal was sent to board members by general manager Ricky Garrett, it certainly seems as if plans had been in the works for some time.
That’s entirely possible, since the Legislature — which must approve changes in the district’s bylaws — convenes in just a few weeks, and it takes time to pull together a definitive proposal for consideration.
However, it certainly seems as if Garrett’s mind — and those of three board members — was made up as to how the district would proceed, and Wednesday’s meeting did little to change that impression.
Two issues are at play here: the district’s boundaries and selection of its board of directors.
The board has been elected ever since the district was created in 1952. But in the 66 years since the district’s creation, its official boundaries have been expanded just once, in 1985.
Meanwhile, the district’s customer base has grown dramatically, as WCID No. 1 now sells and treats water for Killeen, Copperas Cove, Belton, Harker Heights, Fort Hood, Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 3 and 439 Water Supply Corporation.
Certainly, the district’s boundaries need to be expanded to areas that receive the district’s water but have no representation on the board.
Garrett’s proposal calls for giving representation to all the areas served and expanding the board to nine members — both good moves. But Garrett sees elections as being too complex, cumbersome and expensive in an expanded district. Instead, his proposal calls for the appointment of board members by the governing body of each municipal entity served by the district.
The board-approved proposal — which is quite detailed regarding appointment procedures — links contract customers’ representation with the length of time the customer had been contracted with the district. As such, Killeen would have three representatives, initially serving three-year terms. Copperas Cove and Fort Hood would have one representative each, with a three-year term.
Harker Heights, Belton, WCID-3 in Nolanville and 439 WSC would each have one-year terms, initially.
After the phase-in period, all board members would serve three-year terms. Because of staggered terms, three board directors would be up for reappointment every year.
No doubt, the proposal has several positive elements, including greater representation across the district and the possibility of new board members every three years.
However, expanding the district’s boundaries while simultaneously stripping 275,000 residents of their voting rights is problematic, to say the least.
In a message to board members, Garrett noted Fort Hood cannot have local elected officials due to federal regulations, making appointment the only way to achieve direct representation. He also said having a board that is both elected and appointed would face legal challenges.
That may be true, but switching to appointed members potentially makes the board less responsive to residents’ concerns while removing the accountability that comes with direct elections.
Further, the proposal allows the district to add future political subdivisions — such as a Municipal Utility District — and consider them for representation on the board.
As such, developers could gain a seat at the board table and oversee water resources that directly impact their own projects.
There simply has to be a workable solution to expand the district’s representation while also preserving residents’ right to vote in board elections.
One possibility is to expand elections to all areas of the district while offering Fort Hood’s garrison commander the opportunity to name an ex officio member, who would not vote on board matters but would serve in an advisory capacity,
Of course, nothing will change if the proposal doesn’t get the backing of our local legislators — and others in Austin.
District 54 state Rep.-elect Brad Buckley, who will take office in January, was briefed last week about the WCID-1 proposal but is still studying the issue and has yet to offer his full support.
While he is committed to seeing the district’s boundaries expanded to better reflect the current service area, he is not sure the proposed board appointment plan is the best one to pursue.
“I want to be thorough and do my research,” Buckley said in a phone interview Friday. “My job is to examine all the possible courses of action, determine the best solution and be able to explain why. We must be thoughtful about how we move forward on anything that affects our water resources.”
Buckley is wise to be cautious about the current plan. As a freshman lawmaker, he should be careful about sponsoring a measure that has the potential to disenfranchise voters in his House district.
That was the concern of several area residents who spoke up after Wednesday’s board vote, including two Killeen council members who cited opposition by local NAACP and LULAC chapters.
However, one water board member said Wednesday he didn’t see it that way, since cities’ elected officials would be making appointments to the board.
Maybe so, but there’s a wide gap between choosing your representative and having someone else do it for you.
To be fair, with council appointments, it’s possible to get better-qualified members serving on the board. But going that route also opens the door to political favoritism and cronyism — both of which would damage the board’s credibility.
Local residents who are unhappy with the district’s current proposal should take the time to contact their elected state representatives — either Buckley or Hugh Shine of Temple — and let them know what they would like to see changed.
This is a big deal. But despite what some WCID-1 officials may think, it’s not a done deal.
It’s up to the district’s customers to demand the best one they can get.