CPS Energy trustee selection process lacks transparency, public input

By DeeDee Belmares

DeeDee Belmares, Public Citizen’s organizer in San AntonioThis op-ed was first published in the San Antonio Report on Sept. 9, 2021.

The search for the next CPS Energy trustee is moving forward, and how the trustee is chosen should be concerning to ratepayers.

Trustees Ed Kelley and John Steen will first select applicants for the full board to review and interview. The candidate chosen by the board will then move on to City Council for a final vote to be appointed. Ratepayers have no say because the nomination process is held behind closed doors. That’s why it is up to City Council to make sure the right candidate is approved, even if it means rejecting the board’s first choice.

CPS Energy expects to present a nominee to the current board for a vote during the October board meeting, then that nominee will go before City Council for a vote of approval in November or December.

With a process designed to exclude public participation, the possibility that a nominee will be rammed through quickly behind closed doors should be alarming.

Outgoing Trustee Ed Kelly claimed, “It’s a good process, it’s a fair process.” But it’s not, and we all need to know if the next trustee will be part of a board that will ask City Council to raise our rates in the fall.

CPS Energy seems to seek out board candidates with heavy business, financial, or corporate backgrounds. But these backgrounds don’t necessarily mean they’ll make sound financial decisions.

We can look as far back as 2006 when CPS Energy began investing in a nuclear reactor that was never built. This failed idea cost the utility — meaning ratepayers — nearly $400 million. In 2018, CPS Energy spent $28.7 million on a new generator for a Spruce Coal unit that was built in 2010. The legal cost for CPS Energy to obtain a judgment to block a citizen-led petition drive to reform the utility is $1 million and growing. The case goes to appeal in September.

Pressed on whether the trustee selection process should change, Mayor Ron Nirenberg responded, “A debate on process changes would distract us from the job at hand.” This doesn’t inspire much confidence.

As an ex-officio board member, the mayor could have — and should have — pushed for transparency early, even as soon as the application window opened for candidates. This would have given ratepayers time and opportunity to weigh in on the candidates that have the unelected power to make decisions affecting their daily lives. There are a few qualified candidates who may be overlooked by the two-member selection team. It’s possible those candidates won’t even get an interview. Because of the lack of transparency in the selection process, we might never know.

It might be too late to reform the undemocratic board nomination process, but we still have one line of defense to challenge the business-as-usual approach of CPS Energy’s trustees: the San Antonio City Council. There are candidates that have more than just business and corporate experience that would offer a unique and valuable perspective to the board. The council should exercise its authority and not rubber-stamp the board’s selected candidate without considering this. They can vote to disapprove a candidate and ask that the board consider someone else. City Council can push for greater transparency about all the candidates when they consider and vote for the next board member.

Disclosure: DeeDee Belmares is a member of the San Antonio Report’s Board of Community Advisors.