By Marice Richter
The Tarrant Regional Water District board will consider a resolution Tuesday morning to censure board member Mary Keheller for her lone position on key issues facing the agency.
Among the allegations, the resolution states that Keheller “violated applicable standards of conduct” by using her board position for personal or political gain, opposed the district’s position in adverse lawsuits, refused to recuse herself from discussion of litigation in which she was an opposing party and misrepresenting the position of the board to the Fort Worth City Council regard drought contingency.
Keheller’s conduct “has caused the District to incur unnecessary expense and has unnecessary conflict with the Board and staff which has impaired the ability of the Board to focus on its primary duty and obligation to provide raw water and flood control it the citizens it serves.”
The rebuke would be a public reprimand but would not affect her duty as an elected member of the board.
Keheller, who was elected to the board a year ago on a platform of bringing transparency to the cloistered practices within the TRWD, called the proposed censure a childish act to discredit her reform efforts.
“This is about bad leadership, abuse of power, and loss of control by the board,” Kelleher said. She said she expects a strong showing of supporters at the meeting.
This is the latest fracas in the year-long struggle between Kelleher and the rest of the board and top management of the TRWD over the direction of the public agency.
“In reality, when an elected official is censured, it usually means that elected official is representing their constituency of going along with the powers that be,” she said. “If the 8,942 people who elected to the TRWD were ones trying to censure me, I’d be humiliated looking for a big rock to hide under.
“But they’re not and that’s what’s most important to,” she said. “I work for the people not the board.”
The TRWD board meeting follows closing on the heels of a ruling by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the district does not need to hold an election this year to fill the expiring four-year terms of board members Jim Lane and Marty Leonard.
This was the most recent in a succession of court rulings in companion lawsuits that supported the TRWD position that a 2014 election is unnecessary because the Texas Legislature moved the TRWD election cycle from even-numbered to odd-number years.
Kelleher aligned with the plaintiffs and against the district in supporting an election because the legislation sponsored by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, did not address whether Leonard and Lane could serve a fifth year without a vote.
Court rulings have favored appointment over election for the interim year.
Besides her adverse positions on the election lawsuits, Keheller has opposed appealing a lawsuit brought by wealthy Dallas businessman Monty Bennett over open meeting law violations.
Bennett’s suit was the result of the water district’s use of its power of eminent domain to seize some land on his East Texas ranch for the $2.3 billion water pipeline the water district is building with the city of Dallas to transport water 150 miles from Lake Palestine to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Bennett’s suit charges that the water district violated the Texas open meeting laws and set up a system of circumventing public discussion of significant projects such as the pipeline. Public votes by the water amount to a “rubber stamp” of decisions reached in closed private meetings, according to the lawsuit.
The 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 censure resolution charges that Kelleher’s votes against the acquiring the easement on Bennett’s property and opposing an appeal in Bennett’s lawsuit represents a conflict of interest since Bennett was a major donor to her 2013 campaign for the TRWD board.
“The Board recognizes that the votes cast by Director Mary Kelleher are not themselves sanctionable, but finds that the timing of the votes in connection with the acceptance of campaign contributions from a Dallas County resident who was suing the Tarrant Regional Water District creates a conflict of interest and the appearance that she is using her board position for the benefit of her Dallas County based campaign contributor,” the resolution states.
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.
Since being seated last June, Keheller has sought to obtain records from the district that might reflect misuse of taxpayer money by some board members and top officials, including General Manager Jim Oliver.
But Kelleher withdrew a legal document her lawyer filed to obtain the records after State Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, filed a similar request for the records and announced his intention to collect the documents on May 2.
Bennett is a campaign donor of Gooden, who was defeated in the March 4 Republican primary by Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman.