Special to the Fort Worth Business Press
Newly-seated Tarrant Regional Water District board member Mary Kelleher is wasting no time in her push for more accountability and openness in district business matters. But her zeal to make good on her campaign pledge to shed light on district policies and decision-making has already resulted in a tense encounter with water district General Manager Jim Oliver, according to a letter she sent to Oliver on June 25. The letter, addressed to Oliver and copied to the other four board members and a district employee, was anonymously emailed to the Fort Worth Business Press and some other media outlets. Kelleher denied sending the letter to the media and said, “I’m disappointed that it got out.” She said the letter was not meant for public disclosure and doesn’t know who sent it to the media. The letter, which began, “Dr. Mr. Oliver,” included an official request for district documents and recounted a heated June 21 confrontation with Oliver at the district’s offices. Kelleher said in the letter she arrived at the district offices that afternoon to pick up copies of documents she had requested in person earlier in the day and was confronted by Oliver, who she described as “noticeably frustrated and angry with my attempts to obtain documents that would shed light on what happens at TRWD.” “I take very seriously my responsibilities as an elected official,” Kelleher told Oliver in the letter, “and I expect that my attempts to provide the necessary oversight in the future will not be met with raised voice, chest-pounding, disrespect, and other behavior unacceptable for a public servant, let alone the senior executive of the TRWD.” Oliver offered a different version of events in a statement released by district spokesman Chad Lorance. “Ms. Kelleher, accompanied by two unidentified males, appeared unannounced at the District offices on June 21 and requested numerous documents from staff, including some that were confidential in nature,” the district statement said. “The release of those confidential documents by the district’s staff would have violated provisions of the Texas Government Code.” The statement said Oliver advised Kelleher during their meeting that requests for such information are typically addressed to the general manager and reviewed by general counsel for compliance with all laws. “Staff members confirmed that Mr. Oliver did not raise his voice during that discussion,” according to the district statement. Kelleher’s letter also referenced “inappropriate” email remarks by Oliver to John Basham, an unsuccessful candidate for the board in the May election. Oliver called Basham a “loser” during an email conversation prior to the election. A copy of that conversation was included with the anonymously emailed copy of Kelleher’s letter to Oliver. “In light of these repeated outbursts, in my view, the district should consider whether it is appropriate for you to continue in your current position and/or whether you should be required to take anger management training,” according to the letter. The documents Kelleher requested included minutes and recordings of executive sessions of the TRWD board; email correspondence with a local political consulting group; email correspondence between board members and top officials; payments to an engineering firm; and documents pertaining to real estate transactions involving Oliver. Kelleher asked for delivery of some of the documents by the close of business on June 26, and the remainder by the end of the day on June 27. In an interview on June 27, Kelleher said the episode raises suspicions that district officials are trying to conceal information from the public. She said she was especially upset to be told that there are no minutes or recordings of executive sessions or meetings of the Construction and Operations Committee. “If there is nothing to hide, why not show me the documents?” she asked. The district also faces allegations of violating open meeting laws in a lawsuit filed by a wealthy Dallas businessman who is upset over the lack of opportunity for input on a water pipeline that will cross his East Texas ranch. In the suit, Monty Bennett claims that the water district – a government entity – has violated Texas open meeting laws and set up a system of circumventing public discussion of significant projects such as Trinity River Vision and the $2.3 billion pipeline the district 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. Noting that 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 nullification of all contracts related to the pipeline. Bennett and another East Texas ranch owner, Bennie Bray, contributed more than $200,000 to the campaigns of Kelleher, and her running mates, Basham and Timothy Nold, who ran on a platform of open government. Nold and Basham were defeated in the election by incumbents Vic Henderson and Jack Stevens. Kelleher defeated incumbent Hal Sparks. In her letter, Kelleher said she will not back down. “I was elected to serve as a board member of the TRWD, and I will not be stopped or intimidated in my efforts to fulfill my responsibilities,” she wrote.