Advocates for an election this spring to fill two seats on the Tarrant Regional Water District board are buoyed by new developments at top state and federal appeals courts.
After suffering recent setbacks in state and federal district courts in Fort Worth, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and the Texas Supreme Court have both ordered expedited document filings in the two separate lawsuits seeking elections.
“This is very unusual,” said Christopher Kratovil, who is representing the Rev. Kyev Tatum and his relatives in the federal appeal and John Basham and other activists in the state lawsuit. “It’s unusual to get an expedited briefing in one appeals court but I’ve never seen it happen in two courts in essentially the same case.
“I think it shows there are some questions about how the TRWD has been operating,” he said.
TRWD officials declined to comment on the expedited briefings.
Kratovil filed appeals within days of the district court rulings, which dismissed the lawsuits and declined to order an election to fill the expiring four-year terms of Jim Lane and Marty Leonard.
TRWD attorneys argued that an election is unnecessary this year because the Texas Legislature passed a bill last year that moves water board elections from even-year to odd-year cycles.
But the legislation sponsored by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, did not address whether Leonard and Lane could serve a fifth year without a vote.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the terms of Leonard and Lane end in May but the vacancies could be filled by appointment rather than an election.
“We believe that the federal court erred and that the seats should be filled by election rather than selection,” Kratovil said.
The Texas Supreme Court gave the TRWD only 72 hours, ending at 5 p.m. Friday, to respond to the Basham group’s request for an injunction that would a hearing.
In their response, TRWD attorneys called Basham and others in the suit “surrogates of Monty Bennett,” a wealthy Dallas resident who is trying to prevent a pipeline to be built jointly by the TRWD and city of Dallas from crossing his East Texas ranch.
“This original proceeding is the latest in a series of suits that Monty Bennett has sponsored for the purpose of stopping the Integrated Pipeline Project,” the TRWD response states. “Bennett has launched a multi-pronged legal attack aimed at stopping the project because a small segment of the pipeline may pass under his pleasure ranch.’
TRWD attorneys also stated that an election is unnecessary “because there is no law that calls for or allows such an election, there is no statutory or constitutional provision creating a right to vote for TRWD directors in May 2014.”
In the Basham petition, Kravotil said “there is no authority to support (the TRWD) argument that the successors to Directors Lane and Leonard should be appointed by the Board rather than elected by the public.”
In the Tatum suit, the Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans ordered an expedited schedule for document filings and oral arguments the first week in April in New Orleans.
Kravitol said either the Fifth Circuit or the Texas Supreme Court have the authority to order an election even though the deadline has passed for government entities to call elections for May 10.
Basham, who ran unsuccessfully for the TRWD last May and in several previous elections, is an announced candidate for the board should there be a 2014 election. Others who announced their intentions to run in May are Craig Bickley, an engineer, and Melissa McDougall, who works for a retirement fund, and is a community and neighborhood activist in Fort Worth.