Marice Richter Business Press Correspondent
New Tarrant Regional Water District board member Mary Kelleher was given a stack of documents from the district on Friday, but she is not sure she received the information she was seeking.
She estimated that she received about 500 documents.
“I’m very pleased that they turned over what they did but I don’t think I really got what I am looking for,” she said.
She said she has looked through about a third of the paperwork and found mostly copies of emails sent by public information officer Chad Lorance to TRWD board members and top officials.
Kelleher said she has yet to find emails exchanged by board members and top officials, including Water District General Manager Jim Oliver and Trinity River Vision Authority Executive Director J.D. Granger, or emails between TRWD officials and political consultant Bryan Eppstein.
She said she plans to continue reading the documents through the weekend. At the very least, the documents appear to be informative and beneficial as background information, she said.
Kelleher ran for the board in May as part of a slate of three candidates who wanted to bring more openness to district business dealings. She was the only candidate of the three to win a seat on the five-member board. Board President Vic Henderson and Vice President Jack Stevens were re-elected. Two other board members, Jim Lane and Marty Leonard, were not up for re-election.
District officials have leaned toward more openness recently, making audio recordings of meetings and posting meeting agendas online.
However, Kelleher said a new governance policy the board adopted this week might prohibit her from obtaining some records without approval from the full board.
“I’m worried that they will try to deny me the records based on the policy,” said Kelleher, who abstained from voting on the policy.
“The recently adopted policy is clear that an individual board member can access records, in his or her capacity as a board member, by merely requesting access from the general manager to those records,” Lorance said.
“However, the policy provides that a board member cannot direct or require employees to prepare a report that would require the employee to analyze information of existing records in order to prepare a new report,” he said. “Those directives to create new reports or records shall be by board action.”
Kelleher has abstained from voting since being seated in June because, she said, she wants a legal opinion on whether the board is satisfying the requirements of Texas open meetings law.
She said she would continue to abstain until she has a legal ruling.
“I really think that is too bad,” said Lane. “Mary is a smart lady and I want to see her participate.”
Kelleher got into a heated debate with Lane and other board members at the July 22 board meeting over document requests and taxpayer spending on a helicopter and deer lease.
Board members argued over a tract of land of about 500 acres, which the district owns near Lake Bridgeport. After disagreeing about use of the term “deer lease,” board members argued about the board’s practice of letting district employees use the land for hunting.
“I intend to see it, and see what is really there,” Kelleher said.
The district owns a helicopter but it is not the luxury model that appeared in campaign fliers put out by Kelleher and her running mates, John Basham and Timothy Nold.
We used to have to rent planes and helicopters to check on our facilities,” Lane said. “It was cheaper for us to own a helicopter but there is nothing lavish about it.”
Lane also denied that the board has violated open meeting laws.
“When I was on the (Fort Worth) City Council, we had those issues and I walked out of closed door meetings,” he said. “I’ve practiced law for 42 years so I know when the law is being broken.”
The district 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 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 $2.3 billion 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 all contracts related to the pipeline. Kelleher said her objective is not to cause trouble or berate water district employees or other board members.
“I’m just trying to do the right thing,” she said. “I just want to be sure we are doing everything right. If I find out that nobody is hiding anything or doing anything wrong, I’ll be happy.”