New TRWD board member says she won’t vote

Marice Richter

Special to the Fort Worth Business Press

After being sworn in as a new member of the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) board on June 18, Mary Kelleher then abstained from the voting process, on every item saying she did not want to be “part of anything that is potentially outside the scope of the [Texas] Open Meetings Act.” “Until I have some kind of reassurance of that fact, I do not feel comfortable making any decisions,” she said. Kelleher was one of three challengers who banded together seeking to replace long-time incumbents on the TRWD board. Kelleher was the only one successful in her bid. The three ran on a slate saying they were concerned that the water board was in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The TRWD denied the allegations regarding the open meetings act. Following Kelleher’s statement, Jim Lane, another TRWD board director, asked: “What would be total compliance? You either comply or you don’t. You can’t halfway comply.” Board President Victor Henderson noted that the board was “here in an open session.” “Correct,” Kelleher replied, “but I want a legal opinion from the outside firm that can assure us that all of the things that we need to exactly have, including the executive sessions, are in compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act – period. “We’ve spent so many millions of dollars in legal fees. We have another lawsuit pending that’s alleging that we’re in violation of the open meetings act. I don’t have any idea why the board would not want an outside, independent [opinion], an additional one just to make sure that we’re not [in violation of the act],” she said. “We have a lot to lose; we just lost a lot. I think we serve the community well by getting an additional one, and I don’t understand why my fellow directors wouldn’t be in agreement with me.”

Kelleher was elected to the board to in the May 11 election. Her swearing-in was postponed because John Basham, another member of the slate, sought a re-count.

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One of Kelleher’s first priorities is to try to change the time of the monthly meetings from Tuesday morning to a more convenient time for working citizens to attend. At very least, she wants the meetings recorded and streamed over the Internet, she said in an interview with the Fort Worth Business Press prior to her swearing in.

“I was shocked to learn that meetings weren’t recorded,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many people have told since I was elected that they want the meetings broadcast so they watch it.”

The water district has been criticized for making multi-million-dollar deals, financed with taxpayer money, to increase water supply capacity, and pay for a massive flood control and mixed-use development project north of downtown Fort Worth called the Trinity River Vision.

The water district most recently has been targeted by critics for its ability to seize land for improvements that benefit public welfare, known as eminent domain, without opportunity for meaningful public input.

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The prickly eminent domain issue has prompted a lawsuit by a wealthy Dallas resident, whose East Texas ranch is in the path of a $2.3 billion water pipeline the water district is planning to build with the city of Dallas to transport water 150 miles from Lake Palestine to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The water district is using its power of eminent domain to seize part of the property owner’s land for the pipeline.

Landowner Monty Bennett’s lawsuit charges that the pipeline construction will disrupt a wildlife sanctuary on his property.

Bennett and Bennie Bray, another East Texas landowner whose ranch is to be sliced by the pipeline were major contributors to the water board campaigns of Kelleher, Basham and Timothy Nold, spending more than $200,000 to unseat the three incumbents and making the May water election the most expensive in history.

Jim Oliver, general manager of the water district, charged Kelleher, Basham and Nold with engaging in a “smear attack” against the water district that was bankrolled by a couple of disgruntled landowners.  

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J. Parker Ragland contributed to this report.