Business Press Correspondent
A former candidate for the Tarrant Regional Water District board of directors has joined together with grassroots activists to sue the water district over its decision to cancel the 2014 election and extend the terms of two board members.
The lawsuit filed by 2013 board candidate John Austin Basham, activist Darlia Lee Hobbs and the non-profit Texans for Government Transparency accuses the TRWD of illegally cancelling the upcoming election by misinterpreting a new state law that changes the water district’s election cycle from even to odd years.
TRWD’s interpretation of the law that takes effect Sept. 1 moves the next election to May 2015, adding a year to the terms of board members Jim Lane and Marty Leonard, whose terms were to be up in 2014, the lawsuit charges.
Board members each serve four-year terms and are elected on a staggered cycle.
“Significantly, this law did not extend the terms of TRWD directors beyond their existing four year terms, nor did it specifically prohibit an election from taking place in 2014 to ensure the required four-year term is not exceeded,” the lawsuit states.
“The TRWD has indicated that it does not intend to hold an election in May 2014, which would have the effect of granting Directors Jim Lane Marty Leonard five-year terms in violation of state law and the Texas Constitution,” the lawsuit states.
“We were just notified of the lawsuit earlier this afternoon and haven’t had time to review the accusations,” TRWD spokesman Chad Lorence said Friday. “During the last session, the legislature passed a bill clarifying that our elections would be held in May of odd-numbered years. That is our intent.”
Basham, president of Texans for Government Transparency, finished fourth in the May election that seat the top three finishers in the seven-person race. Mary Kelleher, who ran with Basham and Timothy Nold as a slate of candidates, received the most votes. She unseated long-time incumbent Hal Sparks.
Incumbents Vic Henderson and Jack Stevens, who ran as a bloc with Sparks, were re-elected after a bitterly divisive campaign. The water district had previously changed its election from 2012 to 2013 to be in sync with a uniform May election date that was result of a previous change in state law. Miller, Egan, Molter & Nelson LLP filed the suit in Tarrant County.
“We simply want the TRWD to start complying with the laws of the state of Texas,” Basham said in a statement. “Picking and choosing how long a term you will service when a voter can vote for you doesn’t even sound like something you would expect in America.
“If it weren’t really happening in front of me, I wouldn’t believe it,” he said in the statement.
Texans for Government Transparency is a watchdog organization that accuses the TRWD of violating Texas open meeting laws through secret meetings, abusing eminent domain authority for seizing property, and manipulating election laws to extend board terms without voter consent.
Basham also said in the statement that he asked Henderson at the Aug. 20 board meeting whether he intended to hold the election in 2014. Henderson did not answer although he later indicated the district did not intend to hold the election due to the new law and legal advice, Basham said.
Lane said he opposed the decision to move the election when the board voted to change the 2012 election to 2013.
“As an attorney, that just feel seem right to me,” he said. But, he said, there is a financial savings to have uniform election days with local cities and school districts.
“It costs about $250,000 to hold an election,” he said. “It would also seem to be an advantage to non-incumbent candidates to hold the election with others because you get more people out to vote.
“When we hold our elections by ourselves, hardly anybody votes,” he said.