Water district hires lawyer to boost transparency

Ross Fischer 


By Jack Z. Smith Special Projects Reporter The Tarrant Regional Water District, frequently criticized for being insufficiently open and transparent in its operations, has employed an Austin attorney to help it deal with the issue and assess its compliance with state law regarding public disclosure. TRWD General Manager Jim Oliver told water district board members at their meeting Tuesday that he has hired Ross Fischer, former chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission, to help the water district handle a barrage of “very extensive open records requests” and ensure that the agency is adhering to state requirements. “We feel it’s time to bring on … an expert in this field,” Oliver said.

He told the Fort Worth Business Press that Fischer’s hiring did not require a board vote because he will be paid on an hourly basis as an outside attorney assisting with legal work performed for the district by the Fort Worth law firm of Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell, Kelly & Ray. Fischer will be paid $350 per hour for his services, according to TRWD officials.  Oliver said the TRWD this year has received “125 very extensive open-records requests” that have been extremely time-consuming and cost the district an estimated $223,000 in staff time.

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Asked to comment on the hiring of Fischer, new water board member Mary Kelleher said, “I think he would be great.” Kelleher was the top vote-getter in a heated board election earlier this year and has criticized what she considers the district’s lack of transparency. She had a heated confrontation with Oliver in June over her requests for information about district activities. Board President Vic Henderson, in a written statement that he read to the board, said: “It is important that we have an independent and recognized open-government expert … to review our public information process” and “assess our ethical behavior.” By retaining a well-regarded expert such as Fischer to assess the agency’s performance in terms of meeting public-disclosure requirements and ethical standards, Henderson said, “we can deal in facts rather than innuendo.”

Henderson said he is “confident” that the district is “not only handling the growing number of public information requests properly and promptly, but that we actually are going beyond state law to fulfill these requests. ” The district is challenging a lawsuit filed by wealthy Dallas businessman Monty Bennett, who claims the water district has violated state open meetings law and attempted to minimize public scrutiny of the water board’s decision-making process. Bennett opposes the joint effort of the TRWD and Dallas Water Utilities to run a large water pipeline under his ranch property in East Texas as part of the $2.3 billion Integrated Pipeline Project designed to boost future water supplies for North Central Texas. The TRWD has in recent months taken various actions to make its operations more open to the public, including live-streaming video of board meetings and posting videos of past board meetings on its website.

The water district is a major supplier of raw water to Tarrant County and surrounding counties. The district also operates four reservoirs, maintains a 27-mile levee system that thwarts flooding from the Trinity River and is playing a key role in the $909.9 million Trinity Uptown flood control and economic development project in Fort Worth. The district gets the bulk of its revenues from water sales, but also levies a two-cent property tax rate and has received substantial income from natural gas and oil royalties and lease bonuses, primarily as a result of the Barnett Shale play in North Texas.