When John Blankenship steps down as president of a regional water board later this week, the body will be losing a member with more than 20 years of experience.
But more importantly than losing its president, the board will be losing a developer— a conflict of interest that’s not allowed under the Texas Water Code.
Blankenship is stepping down in advance of the Sept. 1 effective date of legislation that increases the size of the Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 — whose outdated boundaries currently are constrained to the Killeen city limits as they existed in 1984.
As Blankenship’s residential development is located in the Nolanville area, it is outside the current district boundaries — which technically allowed him to serve on the board without being in violation of the water code, which bars anyone who develops property within the boundaries of a water district from serving on boards that control drinking water supply,
However, the district’s service area does include Nolanville, so the board on which Blankenship serves controls the drinking water supply for his development — as well as the price charged for providing that service.
That in itself would seem to be in conflict with the water code, at least in the spirit of the law.
Moreover, because the district’s boundaries were unchanged for 24 years, customers in the vast majority of WCID-1’s service area — which extends from Copperas Cove to Belton — have been ineligible to vote for board members. And that includes customers in Blankenship’s Nolanville community.
Unfortunately, that has largely been a moot point. The opportunity for voters to choose board members has been virtually nonexistent since Blankenship came onboard in January 1998. In fact, in May 2018, the regional water board had its first election in 24 years.
And that election almost didn’t happen because it wasn’t well publicized. In fact, it was barely made public at all.
Current board member Richard “Dick” Young got word about the election and filled out his candidate paperwork on the last day to file.
The notice of election was posted on the district headquarters building, which is located off 38th Street and behind a locked fence. That’s the only place the notice was posted.
Young, a former Killeen city councilman, ran a campaign pushing for openness and transparency, bringing attention to a generally overlooked board election and spurring public involvement.
Despite the fact that only a portion of Killeen residents were eligible to take part in the election, 1,600 voters went to the polls, with Young being the top-vote getter among the three candidates running.
Young and incumbent Allen Cloud won seats on the board, but incumbent Mike Miller was turned out.
The board’s actions over the next six months spoke volumes about the board’s transparency — or lack thereof.
First, the district’s general manager, Ricky Garrett, proposed state legislation — without a full board vote — that would expand the district’s boundaries to match that of the service area, but would also do away with elections in favor of appointed board seats.
Also without a board vote, Garrett and selected board members pitched the proposal to city councils in the service area in hopes of securing support that would translate to backing from the Killeen area’s state representatives.
It wasn’t until Killeen residents complained about the potential loss of their voting rights that the board agreed to keep elections going forward.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
In rewriting the proposed legislation, Garrett tacked on a provision that would have exempted the district from the provision in the Texas Water Code that prohibits developers from serving on the board.
The provision was brought to the attention of state Rep. Hugh Shine, but only after the bill had been filed in Austin. Shine subsequently substituted a bill with the original language — and that bill passed both House and Senate and was signed into law by the governor.
But with Blankenship leaving the board this week, the board had to decide how to fill his seat.
To Garrett, the answer was simple. He told a Herald reporter the board members would talk among themselves and then pick someone to serve until the next election in November 2020.
So much for openness and transparency.
However, to the board’s credit, it has re-examined the appointment process and is now accepting applications for the position. But again, the appointment process hasn’t been well publicized — a situation the Herald has attempted to remedy over the past week.
As of July 19, no applications had been received, but that situation changed last week. As of Friday, “several” people had submitted forms to be considered for the position, Garrett said in an email.
That’s certainly encouraging.
The board seat is far from inconsequential.
WCID-1 controls the supply and treatment of drinking water for more than 300,000 Central Texas residents. More importantly, it controls the price and level of service available — as well as authorizing the distribution of water to future commercial and residential developments.
Anyone who has lived in Texas for any length of time knows that water is among the most important commodities the state has — and how it’s managed and allocated has the potential to determine future development, especially in fast-growing areas of the state. And Central Texas is definitely such an area.
Serving on the water board should not be a responsibility applicants take lightly.
Though the board meets only once a month, it deals with distribution and water quality questions that have the potential to impact local residents in both the short and long term.
Also, the board represents a district that is completing work on a $50 million water treatment plant — a debt water customers will be financing through their water rates for years to come.
Granted, nobody can become an expert on water overnight. Young acknowledged how much work he had to do to get up to speed on all the various aspects of the water district’s business when he first came on board.
For this very reason, Blankenship’s expertise will be missed, and undoubtedly he will be asked to provide valuable advice and context on an ex-officio basis moving forward.
Indeed, the potential loss of experience and institutional knowledge was one of the concerns some board members had in opening the board up to elections.
An appointment system would have allowed the board to identify and select members who had knowledge of water treatment and delivery systems in the various cities the district serves.
However, a system of appointments would have created the possibility of a conflict of interest, in which the board members would have an allegiance to the cities they represent, and not the customers at-large. And voters would have no direct say over how long board members serve.
With the water district legislation signed into law, these points are no longer open to debate. Starting next year, the board will be chosen by the district’s voters — and they will decide who will best represent their interests.
In the meantime, it’s up to dedicated, principled Central Texas residents to put their names into consideration for service on this important board.
The application can be found at
bit.ly/WCIDopening. The deadline to file is 4 p.m. Aug. 19.
Applicants must live within the water district’s boundaries as they will be defined as of Sept. 1, or own taxable property within the district.
This is an opportunity and an obligation that should not be overlooked.
A small number of applications would only validate the board’s original intent to make its selection internally — and serve to diminish the positive impact of last year’s board election.
The board’s old ways of doing business don’t work anymore — the voters have said as much.
It’s essential that new members — both the person appointed this month and those elected next year — continue the trend to openness, transparency and accessibility to the district’s residents.
It’s how every governmental entity should operate — and our regional water board is no exception.