Monty Bennett: Businessman, water district activist

Monty Bennett’s name will not appear on the May 9 ballot for the Tarrant Regional Water District board of directors yet he remains a powerful backstage player whose influence could shape the direction of the district’s business for years to come.

To some, Bennett is a ruthless Dallas carpetbagger who is threatening the future water supply for a large swath of North Texas as well as jeopardizing the Trinity River Vision’s transformative Panther Island development project in Fort Worth for his personal reasons.

But to others, Bennett is a hero whose handiwork could upend 30 years of water district administration, which has come under attack with allegations of cloistered practices, lack of responsiveness to citizen concerns, cronyism and dubious use of taxpayer money.

A wealthy businessman, Bennett says he trusts his own instincts and continues to spend his own money on what he believes is right.

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At the moment, Bennett’s sights are set on helping two candidates, Craig Bickley and Michelle Von Luckner, win election to the TRWD board May 9. As he sees it, if the two can defeat incumbents seeking re-election Jim Lane and Marty Leonard,and join forces with board activist Mary Kelleher, the stage is set for meaningful change in business practices and possibly priorities in the district. Keith Annis, a consultant, is also running for the board. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the race will get seats on the five-member board.

“It’s really a shame how TRWD operates and it’s the reason so many people are distrustful of government,” Bennett said in an interview. “The leadership for the past 30 years has run it like their personal playground.”

Bennett, 49, is founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Ashford Hospitality Trust, a real estate investment trust formed in 2003 that focuses exclusively on investing in the hospitality industry. Ashford went public with six hotels valued at $130 million.

Ashford now has more than $5 billion in assets and has outperformed its peers in total shareholder return since its initial public offering according to Bennett’s personal website.

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In this area, Ashford owns the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport Marriott Hotel and the Hilton Hotel in downtown Fort Worth. In 2014, Ashford acquired the boutique Ashton Hotel in downtown Fort Worth.

Although Bennett’s company owns hotel properties in Fort Worth, he had no involvement or even knowledge of the TRWD until he learned of the water district’s plans to build a portion of a $2.3 billion water pipeline across his East Texas ranch. The pipeline, a joint partnership between the TRWD and the city of Dallas, would transport water 150 miles from Lake Palestine to Benbrook Lake, with connections to Richland-Chambers and Cedar Creek reservoirs.

The planned route did not sit well with Bennett, who did what any disgruntled resident would do: he sought an opportunity to plead his case for an alternative route.

Bennett says he received no response from the TRWD, so in 2013 he sued the water district. By this point, he was no longer angry just that his land was to be taken without his permission. He was angry that the TRWD, as a government entity, had the power to take his land through its power of eminent domain without what he saw as meaningful public input.

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Bennett’s lawsuit accused the TRWD of violating Texas open meeting laws by setting up a system of circumventing public discussion of important projects and taking public votes that “rubber stamp” decisions reached in closed-door meetings.

Bennett’s said his experience with the TRWD was enlightening and empowering.

“It wasn’t just about me and the pipeline,” he said. “The TRWD has run over the rights of so many citizens so many times. This has to stop.”

That’s not the way many longtime water board members and other officials see him.

“Monty Bennett is a Dallas businessman who is spending millions of dollars falsely attacking the Tarrant Regional Water District in an effort to take control of our local water supply,” said TRWD board President Vic Henderson. “He has filed numerous lawsuits against the district, wasting more than $1 million in TRWD taxpayer and ratepayer dollars.”

“To date all of his lawsuits have been rejected by the courts,” Henderson said.

For the record, Bennett said he doesn’t oppose the pipeline nor does he want to block its construction.

“You can’t say I’m not pro-water, pro-Fort Worth or pro-Dallas,” he said. “It just needs to be done in a way that is respectful of citizens’ rights.”

Bennett’s ranch in Henderson County is a sprawling oasis of trees and gently rolling hills and is home to several species of exotic animals. The property has been in his family since his grandfather purchased it in 1963. His mother inherited the land from her father, who died when she was 18. She cried when she learned of the TRWD’s plan to take a piece of the property by eminent domain, Bennett said.

The ranch has been Bennett’s primary home from about eight years. He, his wife and son have a condo in Dallas but spend nearly every weekend at the ranch.

Bennett has slowly expanded the ranch from about 250 acres to about 1,300. He has gone to great lengths to block the TRWD, which is seeking to take 11.6 acres for the pipeline. He was counting on a previously established conservation district and a wildlife protection sanctuary as protection against the seizure under eminent domain.

Although Bennett said he is confident that the pipeline will be rerouted, TRWD officials have long maintained that such a move would end up being more expensive for taxpayers.

Bennett’s original lawsuit continues to amble through the courts with back and forth volleys between the two sides. Most recently, the Texas Supreme Court ordered the TRWD to file a response to Bennett’s appeal of a ruling from the 2nd District Court of Appeals.

“It means that the Texas Supreme Court may be willing to hear our view that a government agency [TRWD] is not immune from a law that is specifically for government agencies,” Bennett said, referring to the Texas Open Meeting Act.

Bennett’s distrust and desire to shake up the TRWD has led to the filing of other lawsuits and his spending tens of thousands of dollars in financial support for challengers to the incumbents in the 2013 and the current election.

He also endorsed two lawsuits filed by grassroots activists challenging the constitutionality of bypassing a 2014 TRWD board election that extended the expiring terms of Lane and Leonard by a year. TRWD prevailed with the argument that the Legislature’s vote to move the uniform election date for local elections from even-numbered to odd-number years did not require an election last year.

Bennett’s prolonged assault against the TRWD status quo has earned him many critics and foes, including some powerful ones. In Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price’s State of the City address on March 3, she suggested the contest for two seats on the water district board are more important than the city and school board races on the May 9 ballot.

“Get educated and learn about this race,” she said, putting her remarks in the context of North Texas’ critical water needs. “It can affect our future.”

At the same time, Bennett’s tenacity and willingness to spend money on causes he endorses has earned him many loyal supporters.

“I’m so glad there is someone like Monty Bennett who is willing to do this and isn’t afraid to stand up and be the voice of the citizens,” said Chuck Crook, who is part of a group of Mansfield residents who are similarly fighting the pipeline route and face loss of property to eminent domain.

Kelleher also regards Bennett as an unwavering champion of citizens’ rights.

“Monty Bennett is a brilliant businessman with a crusader’s desire for good governance,” she said. “He has the grit, determination and financial means to defeat his opponents and the tenacity to see his crusade accomplished.”

In April 2014, the TRWD board voted 3-1 to censure Kelleher for violating “applicable standards of conduct” in opposing the board majority on several key issues facing the district; Lane abstained and Kelleher voting against the censure. After the vote, Henderson said it was tied to her conflicts of interest with Bennett, who helped back her campaign.

Bennett supported a slate of three candidates for the water board election in 2013. Of those three, Kelleher won a seat on the board.

Bennett said his battle for change within TRWD has introduced him to many people who have had similar grievances with the agency over the years. Issues range from eminent domain to flood control problems to concerns with the Trinity River Vision project.

“There are so many good people out there who have been fighting these issues on their own for a long time,” Bennett said. “These are people whose rights are constantly being trampled on by the TRWD but they don’t have the finances to fight back.

“I’ve listened to their stories, and become friends with them,” he said. “That’s why I am going to see this through.”

— This story included material from the Business Press archives.