Federal judge rules against plaintiffs in TRWD election lawsuit

Marice Richter


A federal district judge has declined to order the Tarrant Regional Water District to hold an election in May as the deadline for government entities expires today.

But U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s ruling to dismiss a lawsuit and deny an injunction that would have allowed an election to proceed won’t be the end of the legal wrangling in this case.

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Matt Rinaldi, attorney for the Rev. Kyev Tatum who filed the federal lawsuit, said appeals are planned in this case as well as a companion lawsuit in the state court system. Tatum’s suit claimed that voters would be denied their constitutional right to vote if an election is not held to fill the expiring terms of board members Jim Lane and Marty Leonard.

Rinaldi said an election is still possible by court order.

The water district had not been planning an election in May because the Legislature passed a bill last session that moves water board election from an even-year to an odd-year cycle. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, did not address the expiring terms of Lane and Leonard – or whether they should serve an extra year until a May 2015.

“While we are disappointed, we are very pleased that the judge agreed with us that the terms of Lane and Leonard end in May,” Rinaldi said. “We disagree about how successors should be chosen.”

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O’Connor ruled that the appropriate way to fill the seats is by appointment.

A section of the state water code states “vacancies will be filled by appointment” so “no election is required in May 2014. Having found no election is required in May 2014, plaintiffs failed to prove a substantial likelihood of success on the merits,” O’Connor stated in the ruling.

TRWD official said they pleased with the decision, which is similar to rulings in state courts.

“The decision to move the election had nothing to do with violating the constitutional rights of voters,” water district officials said in a statement. “It was based on mandates issued by the state Legislature to create a uniform election date that protected the voting rights of overseas military personnel.

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“After receiving favorable rulings recently in both the federal and state courts, we will continue with plans to call for an election in May 2015,” the statement said.

Rinaldi said the federal ruling will be appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the companion lawsuit filed by John Basham and other activists will be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court following an unfavorable ruling by the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.

“Since the federal judge agreed with us that the terms end, how successors should be chosen is a very narrow legal issue,” Rinaldi said.

Basham, who has run unsuccessfully for the water board, filed the suit with Darlia Hobbs and Texans for Government Transparency, to prevent Lane and Leonard from serving a fifth year without an election.

TRWD board member Mary Kelleher said she hoped decision had gone differently. 

“I’m disappointed in the judge’s decisions to recommend the board appoint successors instead of allowing an election by the people,” Kelleher said. “I have no doubt the remaining board majority will now move to either appoint Directors Lane and Leonard or two other members of the Fort Worth 7th Street clique or Good Ole’ Boys Club to sit on the board until 2015.

“I will not support this as I believe the people should be able to choose their TRWD directors,” she said. I sincerely hope my fellow directors will join me in calling an immediate election.”