PSB consumer advocate ousted; council objects to his public meeting

EL PASO, Texas - The El Paso city council Tuesday replaced the consumer advocate to the Public Service Board over what some say was a mis-characterization of his intentions.

Dr. Rick Bonart's term will now expire December 31. 

Initially, City Representative Eddie Holguin made a motion to re-appoint him to the PSB and city representative Carl Robinson seconded the motion. But City Representative Emma Acosta argued Bonart circumvented city policy by holding a meeting that interfered with the selection process of board members.

The PSB decides how much you pay in your water bill every month, is in charge of tens of thousands of acres of land and makes decisions on future development.

As his term was nearing its end, Bonart set up a public meeting for ratepayers to have an opportunity to meet the candidates for the PSB. The meeting, held November 12 at the El Paso County Courthouse, was attended by Bonart and other PSB candidates.

At the time, Bonart said he asked the PSB to use their community room and the agency was not responsive, so El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar allowed him to use the courthouse's public meeting room. Former city representative Susie Byrd moderated the event. 

However, Acosta said Bonart should not have held the meeting without consulting city council first.

"I don't even know why he did this, so it's kind of like 'why are you doing this and circumventing a process that we took many months to actually put together and hired a consultant and you go and have your own meeting for what purpose?' "

County Judge Escobar defended Bonart, saying Acosta mis-characterized his informational meeting.

Government watchdog Lisa Turner chided council for curtailing Bonart's access to the public.

"How would you feel if council decided to sensor you for holding a meeting with the members of your district? It's the same thing. Exactly the same thing," she said.

Some on city council brought up Bonart's sometimes abrasive style.

"He has a reputation of being very confrontational, of being rude," said Rep. Michiel Noe. "He has his own ideas and tries to force them on the PSB and I can't support him."

In the end, council voted 7 to 1 to appoint attorney Chris Antciff in Bonart's place. Rep. Robinson voted No.

On a 7-1 vote, with Rep. Lilly Limón opposing, council also re-appointed Dr. Richard Shoephoerster, UTEP's Dean of the College of Engineering, to the board. He is currently the PSB chairman.

Recently, Shoephoerster and Bonart butted heads when Bonart opposed a communication policy by the PSB that would have prevented board members from talking to the media and ratepayers before and after meetings.

Shoephoerster felt members should exercise their freedom of speech only during the PSB's public meetings and not "try to influence policy" through news stories.

Bonart said board members have a right and a responsibility to let the public know of matters of public concern ahead of meetings and votes.

Read about it on this story by El Paso Inc, "Leeser defends free speech for PSB members."

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