Questions arise on possible conflict of interest

Despite concerns of a potential conflict of interest, a current Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD) board member will be allowed to also serve on a local water supply board at the same time.

Jimmy Skipton, whose term on the HTGCD board expires November 2018, was recently elected to serve on the board of the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corporation (DSWSC).

Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association (TESPA) representatives wrote a letter to Skipton, requesting he step down from the HTGCD. 

“While we understand [Skipton’s] desire to serve the public, we believe that serving on both boards gives rise to an appearance of a conflict of interest,” TESPA’s letter states.

Linda Kaye Rogers, HTGCD board president, said the district’s attorney recommended the board take no action.

“I consulted our attorney,” Rogers said. “There’s no breach of the legal ethics of our current rules, so there is no stand the board will take on this.”

Section 36.051 of the Texas Water Code prohibits a groundwater conservation district board member from serving on the board of a water supply corporation.

However, the section does not apply to groundwater districts with populations less than 50,000 because it is difficult to find individuals willing to serve on boards in smaller counties.

The 2010 census estimated the population within HTGCD’s boundaries to be approximately 36,000, making it legal for Skipton to serve on both boards.

TESPA’s letter states, however, the Texas State Demographic Center estimates the current population within HTGCD’s jurisdiction is approximately 85,000.

“While technically, it may be legal for [Skipton] to serve on both the HTGCD board and the DSWSC board, doing so is not consistent with Section 36.051’s intent – to avoid conflicts of interests in areas where the population is large enough to support a variety of individuals to serve on public boards,” the letter states.

Skipton had no comment about the issue, but four individuals spoke at the May 17 HTGCD meeting.

While the letter of the law is not being violated, the intent of the law clearly is, said Wimberley resident Louie Bond.

“It’s about ethics, and it’s about passion for what you do and serving the people,” Bond said, directly addressing Skipton. “I would expect, if you were on this board, you would care enough.”

As Bond was finishing her statement, Skipton stood and left the room to take a phone call, as he had previously done a couple times throughout the meeting.

In response, many individuals attending the meeting booed Skipton and applauded Bond for her comment.

Vanessa Puig-Williams, TESPA executive director and general counsel, reiterated concerns expressed in the letter at the meeting.

When Puig-Williams stood to speak, she asked Skipton if he would also leave the room while she was speaking. Skipton responded that he would if he received a phone call.

Puig-Williams said TESPA urged Skipton to step down because while he may recuse himself from issues specifically relating to the DSWSC that come before the board, many issues could indirectly impact the water corporation.

“Because the water corporation is the largest permit in the district and the second largest user of water in the district, there are a variety of issues that could come up which I think give rise to an appearance of a conflict of interest,” Puig-Williams said.

Skipton may not serve the public’s interest in those regards and be motivated to vote a certain way, Puig-Williams said.

Mark Key, DSWSC board president, spoke in support of Skipton at the meeting.

“Y’all may not like Jimmy [Skipton], you may hate him, but he’s one of the smartest individuals I know,” Key said, addressing those attending the meeting.

Key said Skipton and DSWSC board members work hard to conserve water in the Hays Trinity groundwater district.

Rogers said she would have appreciated Skipton notifying the HTGCD board and staff of his election to the water corporation board.

“It would have at least been a courtesy to have let us know what was going on rather than it coming up the way that it has,” Rogers said. “Not doing so, it made it look more suspicious.”

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