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Dispute over Sinton wind turbine project spurs debate between city, school district officials

CORPUS CHRISTI – The dispute over wind turbines at Sinton High School appears to have taken a stark political turn, with Sinton City Manager Jackie Knoxsaying he expects to be fired Tuesday because of school officials influencing the City Council.

The district wants to build two wind turbines for education and energy savings using a $974,000 federal grant. It sued the city last week, arguing city rulings that block the project can’t be enforced because they are the result of illegal, closed-door meetings, and because city zoning rules don’t apply to the project.

District Superintendent Steve VanMatre has “got all three of those council members jumping through every hoop he wants,” Knox said.

Three council members, Eloy Lopez, Linda Guzman-Alaniz and Michelle Solis, have signaled support for the turbine project.

VanMatre said it would be irresponsible as superintendent to interfere with the city manager’s employment.

“Absolutely, categorically, there has never been any discussion to fire Mr. Knox or anyone there,” VanMatre said.

School Board President Linda Gaitan said she isn’t aware of any board members or other school officials calling for Knox’s dismissal. She said she believes City Council members are upset over the lawsuit.

“That’s not a personal thing against the city manager,” Gaitan said. “That’s just the route we felt we needed to take.”

Lopez declined to say whether he was one of the council members asking for a special Tuesday council meeting with topics that include Knox’s employment. But he dismissed assertions that school officials are controlling the council.

Councilman Bill Moore was out of town Friday and said he didn’t know about the Tuesday meeting.

“Sinton is going through a tough time right now and I really regret it for my city,” he said.

Mayor Pete Gonzales said one of Tuesday’s topics is how to respond to the lawsuit, but he wasn’t sure about the rest of the agenda.

Other council members could not be reached for a response to Knox’s comments.

The State Energy Conservation Office, which administers the U.S. Department of Energy grant, has given the school district until Sept. 30 to complete turbine construction before it risks losing the grant, VanMatre said.

The office agreed this week to extend the previous April 30 deadline, VanMatre said.

The extension gives the district time to see how its lawsuit against the city will play out.

Gonzales said he was disappointed in the decision to grant more time. He had urged the state office to reject the district’s request for an extension.

“I wrote them a letter explaining all the mess (VanMatre) has gotten our city into, how he has split the city, how he has split the council,” Gonzales said.

VanMatre acknowledged there are hurt feelings on both sides of the issue but said the mayor’s remarks exaggerated the situation.

“I think there’s a small segment of the community that’s interested in this but I think at the end of the day, people want good fire and police protection and they want good schools, and I think we’re trying to provide that.”

School Board members said it was their decision to sue the city, not VanMatre’s, and that he advised against a lawsuit because it could be costly.

“We all decided ‘let’s go for it,’ ” Gaitan said. “This is one chance we’ve got. We’ve got this funding; we may never get it again.”

The board voted 5-1 to sue the city.

The two 155-foot turbines would be built with the federal grant and $243,000 in district funds. Math and science students would be able to use real-time data from the project in the classroom, school officials said.