Marice Richter and J. Parker Ragland Special to the Business Press
After being sworn in as a new member of the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) board on June 18, Mary Kelleher then abstained from the voting process, on every item saying she did not want to be “part of anything that is potentially outside the scope of the Open Meetings Act.” “Until I have some kind of reassurance of that fact, I do not feel comfortable making any decisions,” she said. Kelleher was one of three challengers who banded together seeking to replace longtime incumbents on the water board in the May 11 election. She was the only one successful in her bid. The three ran on a slate saying they were concerned that the water board was in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The TRWD has denied the allegations regarding the Open Meetings Act. After Kelleher’s statement, board member Jim Lane asked, “What would be total compliance? You either comply or you don’t. You can’t halfway comply.” Board President Victor Henderson noted that the board was “here in an open session.” “Correct,” Kelleher replied, “but I want a legal opinion from the outside firm that can assure us that all of the things that we need to exactly have, including the executive sessions, are in compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act, period. “We’ve spent so many millions of dollars in legal fees. We have another lawsuit pending that’s alleging that we’re in violation of the Open Meetings Act. I don’t have any idea why the board would not want an outside, independent [opinion], an additional one just to make sure that we’re not [in violation of the act],” she said. “We have a lot to lose; we just lost a lot. I think we serve the community well by getting an additional one, and I don’t understand why my fellow directors wouldn’t be in agreement with me.” One of Kelleher’s first priorities is to try to change the time of the monthly meetings from Tuesday morning to a more convenient time for working residents to attend. At the very least, she wants the meetings recorded and streamed over the Internet, she said before her swearing in. “I was shocked to learn that meetings weren’t recorded,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me since I was elected that they want the meetings broadcast so they can watch it.” The water district has been criticized for making multi-million-dollar deals, financed with taxpayer money, to increase water supply capacity and pay for a massive flood control and mixed-use development project north of downtown Fort Worth called the Trinity River Vision. The water district, a quasi-governmental agency, most recently has been targeted by critics for its ability to seize land for improvements that benefit public welfare, known as eminent domain, without the opportunity for meaningful public input. The prickly eminent domain issue has prompted a lawsuit by a wealthy Dallas resident whose East Texas ranch is in the path of a $2.3 billion water pipeline the water district is planning to build with the city of Dallas to transport water 150 miles from Lake Palestine to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The water district is using its power of eminent domain to seize part of Monty Bennett’s land for the pipeline. Bennett’s lawsuit contends that the pipeline construction will disrupt a wildlife sanctuary on his property. Bennett and Bennie Bray, another East Texas landowner whose ranch is to be sliced by the pipeline, were major contributors to the water board campaigns of Kelleher, John Basham and Timothy Nold. The landowners spent more than $200,000 in campaign contributions to try to unseat three incumbents, making the water board election its most expensive in history. Jim Oliver, general manager of the water district, accused Kelleher, Basham and Nold of engaging in a “smear attack” against the water district that was bankrolled by a couple of disgruntled landowners. Bennett’s lawsuit contends that the water district violated the open meetings law and set up a system of circumventing public discussion of significant projects such as the pipeline. Public votes by the water board amount to a “rubber stamp” of decisions reached in closed private meetings, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit seeks full public disclosure of district business and voiding of contracts that are a result of unlawful decision-making without public input, including the pipeline. The lawsuit states that the board unanimously approved all 339 recommendations from an advisory committee at 60 consecutive meetings without substantial discussion. “There has been a complete lack of transparency and an apparent intent to violate open meeting laws,” said Bennett’s attorney, Bill Brewer. Brewer said recently that Bennett is deeply committed to the lawsuit, which was filed before the water board election. “It’s great that there is going to be a new voice on the board, but she [Kelleher] has only one vote” and it is uncertain whether she can change the direction of the board, Brewer said. The lawsuit, still in pretrial discovery phase, is moving forward, he said. “We’re confident in our ability to move this case forward and produce a positive outcome,” said Brewer, an expert in opening meeting cases who said he has handled about 50 such cases in his career and “never lost one.” Besides the pipeline, the decision in Bennett’s lawsuit could have repercussions on other water district projects, including the Trinity River Vision, Brewer said. Critics of the $900 million project accuse the water district, and the overseeing Trinity River Vision Authority, of cronyism in approving contracts and overreaching use of eminent domain to move the project forward without substantive public discussion. “This [lawsuit] could be transformative in so many ways,” Brewer said. Basham, an outspoken critic of the water board, said the lawsuit offers an opportunity for a change of direction. “I’m glad someone with the money is willing to pursue this,” said Basham, who has run for the board unsuccessfully three times. “There is evidence that [the board] has rubber-stamped decisions made in closed meetings 100 percent of the time.” Basham, who came in fourth in the water board election to fill three seats, requested a recount but called it off after determining that he would not pick up enough votes to capture a seat on the five-member board. Henderson finished third among the seven candidates, 90 votes ahead of Basham. Kelleher was the first-place finisher in the race, followed by Jack Stevens and Henderson. Longtime incumbent Hal Sparks was defeated.