Business Press Correspondent
Input from the Texas Attorney General’s office is being sought in a lawsuit over a decision to postpone the 2014 Tarrant Regional Water District board election and extend the expiring terms of two board members an extra year.
During a hearing Dec. 18 in 48th District Court in Tarrant County, Judge David Evans ordered the parties in the election lawsuit to provide notice of a possible constitutional challenge of new legislation and offer the Attorney General’s office the opportunity to respond on appear in court.
At issue are the election requirements for the board of directors of the TRWD under a bill passed by the Texas Legislature last June, which moved TRWD elections from even number years to odd number years.
At the hearing, Evans found that the case might raise a constitutional challenge of the legislation although attorneys did not make that argument.
“Nothing I’m hearing today, as a matter of law, would support me in ordering an election in May,” Evans said after hearing arguments.
He delayed further proceedings until Feb. 3 or until the Attorney General’s office responds, whichever is sooner.
The lawsuit by John Austin Basham, an outspoken critic of the TRWD’s secretive actions and unsuccessful candidate for the board this past May, along other activists, accuses the TRWD of illegally canceling the 2014 election by misinterpreting the legislation.
TRWD lawyers asked the court to dismiss the suit by Basham, Darlia Hobbs and Texans for Government Transparency because the board is immune from being sued by people they govern.
The five TRWD directors were also sued individually in the case. Mary Kelleher, who ran as part of a slate of three candidates with Basham, is the only director who supports the claims in the lawsuit.
The other four directors are siding with the TRWD position.
“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.
Attorney Matthew Rinaldi, who represents Basham and the other activists, said canceling the election is a “gross misreading of the law.” He argued that the Texas Water Code does not allow existing directors to serve terms of more than four years.
The TRWD had previously changed its May 2012 election date to May 2013 to comply with a uniform election date that was the result of a previous change in state law.
Lane previously told the Business Press that the decision to postpone the election from 2012 to 2013 did not seem right to him as an attorney but he agreed to go along to save taxpayers the money of holding an election separate from local cities and school districts.
Lee Christie, attorney for the TRWD, argued in court that HB 3900, the legislation that changed the uniform election date from 2014 to 2015, is constitutional, was unanimously supported by lawmakers and that the TRWD has followed the law in this case.
The TRWD must call an election by Feb. 28 to hold it on May 10, according to Evans’ court order.
Rinaldi said the activists are committed to a May election and welcomes the Attorney General’s input.
“I think the outcome of this case on the trial level at least may hinge on whether the Attorney General decides to intervene to prevent government officers from unconstitutionally extending their terms by postponing elections,” Rinaldi said.