Business Press Correspondent
A Tarrant County district judge has blocked the Tarrant Regional Water District’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges the district routinely violated Texas open meetings in its business dealings.
Judge Susan McCoy denied the TRWD’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by wealthy Dallas resident Monty Bennett, who sued the water district over its decision to build a $2.3 billion water pipeline that would cross his East Texas ranch without meaningful public discussion.
Bennett’s lawsuit claims that the water district, as a a government entity, violated the Texas open meeting laws and set up a system of circumventing public discussion of significant projects such as the Trinity River Vision project and the pipeline the TRWD is building with the city of Dallas to transport water to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Public votes amount to a “rubber stamp” of decisions reached in closed private meetings, according to the lawsuit.
Since the water district has the power to access or condemn private land for the public good and is entrusted with billions of dollars of public money, the lawsuit seeks full public disclosure of district business and voiding the contracts related to the pipeline.
Bennett’s attorney, Bill Brewer of Dallas, said he is pleased with the judge’s ruling.
“This is a very important issue for the public as well as Mr. Bennett,” Brewer said. “People want and expect to know how and why decisions are made by government officials.”
Brewer said he is hopeful that the ruling will allow the case to proceed toward trial.
“But I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to play hide and seek to avoid having depositions taken and documents released showing what has gone on behind closed doors,” Brewer said.
TRWD spokesman Chad Lorance said no decision has been made the water district’s next move.
“The ruling is one of a number of pre-trial procedural issues that the court considers,” Lorance said “It was a complicated motion and not a ruling on the merits of the lawsuit.
“We are studying the judge’s decision and considering our options,” Lorance said. “We look forward to a full hearing before the court.”
Attorneys for the TRWD said in court documents that open meetings laws were was not violated because governmental entities – the water district defines itself as a quasi-governmental agency — are lawfully permitted to discuss legal and personnel matters and deliberate real estate transactions in closed sessions.
TRWD attorneys said in court documents that Bennett’s claim is “groundless and is brought in bad faith, for the purposes of harassment, and for the purpose of causing unnecessary delay and to increase the costs of litigation.”
Bennett’s 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.
Bennett and Bennie Bray, another Dallas businessman and East Texas ranch owner, were large contributors in the recent TRWD board election to a slate of candidates who pledged to bring more transparency to the board.
One of the three, Mary Kelleher, was the top voter-getter and was seated on the five-member board along with the re-election of incumbents Vic Henderson and Jack Stevens.
John Austin Basham, an outspoken critic of the TRWD’s secretive actions, recently filed a lawsuit with other activists over the TRWD decision to cancel the 2014 board election and extend the terms of two board members. Basham finished fourth place in the seven-way race for the three open seats on the board this past May. Lorance said the election was changed to align with a new state law that sets a uniform election date in May of odd-numbered years.
The election date lawsuit claims the TRWD’s decision to extend the terms of two board members is unconstitutional.