Richard Connor: Lights, camera, action! TRWD brings drama to the polls

While writing for last week’s paper about the upcoming election for the Tarrant Regional Water District’s board of directors and a profile we did of the water board’s nemesis, Monty Bennett of Dallas, I could not have expected the flood of emails I received even before the newspaper hit the streets.

The Business Press is printed on Thursday night and delivery begins on Friday with some papers not distributed until Monday. Once the paper goes to press, though, we post the content online.

At the risk of validating the perception that no one reads newspapers these days – the perception is a myth, by the way, simply not true – the immediacy of the Web and the heated topic of the water board campaign collided with incredible speed.

Before 7 p.m. on April 17, I was receiving emails disputing parts of the column, praising it, condemning it, offering “investigative journalism” stories as yet untold, and telling me that this election – and the mudslinging that could very well define it – had just begun.

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Before long it seemed as though we might have on our hands a sequel to the 1974 movie, Chinatown, staring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.

The factual background for the movie was a fight in California over the building of a reservoir in the Owens Valley to supply water to Los Angeles. The rights were privately held, which makes it far different than our taxpayer-supported water district.

In real life, the dispute that inspired Chinatown was called the “California Water Wars.”

Chinatown has everything you could ask for in a movie: suspense, murder, mayhem and sex. In one of the picture’s most dramatic scenes, Nicholson, a private eye, gets his nose slashed.

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One critique of the movie described it as “ part mystery and part psychological drama.”

Both those elements exist in the developing story surrounding the May 9 water board election and Bennett’s ferocious, ongoing battle, with the water district.

The plot: Bennett does not want a planned pipeline to cut through his 1300-acre ranch in Henderson County and he’s pulling out all the stops to prevent the water district from taking the 11.6 acres it covets through its power of eminent domain. His tactics so far include filing lawsuits, turning the strip of land targeted for the pipeline into a cemetery, creating a municipal utility district on the property and, most dramatically, financing the campaigns of candidates who oppose water board members running for re-election.

Reporter Marice Richter’s profile of Bennett in the April 6-12 issue of the Business Press detailed Bennett’s opposition and his family’s attachment to the ranch. The feelings run so deep, Bennett told Richter, that his mother cried when she found out that the water district wanted to take a piece of the property for a pipeline.

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Bennett bankrolled a slate of candidates seeking three seats on the five-member board in 2013 and one of them, Mary Kelleher, unseated an incumbent board member. Incumbents retained the other two seats.

This year, incumbents Marty Leonard and Jim Lane face three challengers. One, Keith Annis, is unaligned; the other two, Craig Bickley and Michele Von Luckner, are backed by Bennett.

This is an important election if for no other reason than this: We need a couple of essential things to live, air and water. We have to have water. Tarrant County has been fortunate over the years to have a plentiful water supply. There is nothing to suggest we are on the verge of a major water crisis but in a state that has endured long-term drought, nothing can be taken for granted. Cities in North Texas, including Fort Worth, have implemented water conservation requirements and the entire region needs to be vigilant in protecting and expanding our water supply.

The back and forth volleying in the election campaign to date has ranged from legitimate discussion of serious issue to outrageous claims intended to inflame the public and motivate voters to follow their emotions as much as their convictions.

As a newspaper, we are trying to separate fact from fiction, both with our news coverage and by arranging a public forum featuring the water board candidates. The forum will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 29, at the Central Library in downtown Fort Worth, 500 W. Third St. (intersection of Third and Lamar, two blocks west and two blocks south of the Tarrant County Courthouse).

There have been no murders in the TRWD version of Chinatown – not yet,. anyway – and no one’s nose has been slashed, but plenty of noses are already out of joint. With early voting beginning April 27 and political observers predicting that up to $2 million could be spent on the campaign, it’s virtually certain that rhetorical mayhem will run amok by the time May 9 rolls around.

You might want to grab some popcorn. The water board election won’t win any Academy Awards (Chinatown was nominated for 11, won 1) but it should be quite a show.

Richard Connor is chairman of the Business Press’ parent company, DRC Media. Contact him at