Fort Worth Business Press Correspondent
The Tarrant Regional Water District board is continuing to fight two separate lawsuits that challenge district decision-making and operating practices.
The board agreed at its board meeting this week to appeal the ruling of Tarrant County District Judge Susan Heygood McCoy to allow a lawsuit filed by Monty Bennett of Dallas to proceed. Lawyers for the district asked that the suit be dismissed.
In the other case, TRWD lawyers are seeking to dismiss a suit challenging a decision to postpone the 2014 TRWD election and extend the term of two board members an extra year.
Bennett’s suit, filed in March, seeks to void a contract to build a $2.3 billion water pipeline that would cross his East Texas ranch because the decision was made without meaningful public discussion.
As a government entity, the suit claims, the water district violated 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 pipeline, a joint project 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 private meetings, according to the lawsuit.
The board voted 4-1 on Tuesday to appeal McCoy’s ruling, with board member Mary Kelleher, an advocate for openness in district business dealings and decision-making, voting against the appeal.
“I am vehemently opposed,” to appealing the ruling, she told the Business Press.
“The TRWD board has exercised its right to seek immediate review of the trial court’s preliminary ruling,” spokesman Chad Lorance said Thursday.
Bennett’s attorney, Bill Brewer of Dallas, said he expected the ruling to be appealed.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to play hide and seek to avoid having depositions taken and documents released showing what has gone on behind closed doors,” Brewer said recently.
TRWD attorneys said in court documents that Bennett’s claim is “groundless and is brought in bad faith, for the purposes of harassment, and for the purpose of causing unnecessary delay and to increase the costs of litigation.”
Bennett’s lawsuit seeks full public disclosure of district business and voiding of contracts that are a result of unlawful decision-making without public input, including the pipeline. The lawsuit states that the board unanimously approved all 339 recommendations from an advisory committee at 60 consecutive meetings without substantial discussion.
The other suit, spearheaded by John Austin Basham, an outspoken critic of what he considers the TRWD’s secretive actions and an unsuccessful candidate for the board last May, seeks to void a TRWD decision to cancel the 2014 board election and extend the terms of two board members by a year.
TRWD lawyers asked a Tarrant County court to dismiss the suit by Basham, board critic Darlia Hobbs and Texans for Government Transparency because the board is immune from being sued by people they govern.
“I fully expect the court will rightfully side with the taxpayers and the law on this issue,” Basham said. “The fundamental American right to have an election and choose your leaders can never be curtailed.”
Matt Rinaldi, attorney for Basham and other plaintiffs, said the TRWD move is a delay tactic.
“They are trying to run out the clock until it is too late to hold an election in 2014,” Rinaldi said. “But I’m confident that their plea in this case will meet the same fate as the one in the Bennett case, and we will have a water board election.”
“In Texas, it is unconstitutional to extend the terms of board members beyond four years,” Rinaldi said.
TRWD officials declined to comment on the lawsuit but Lorance has said the election was changed to conform with a new state law that sets a uniform election date in May of odd-numbered years.