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Richard Connor: This election is water torture but it’s time to decide

🕐 6 min read

Spring is in the air and Fort Worth is once again engaged in its version of waterboarding – and it is political torture.

But soon, it will end.

The election for two seats on the Tarrant Regional Water District’s board of directors is May 9. When it’s over, like an April thunderstorm, brief relief will presage the onslaught of summer heat.

Two of the water board’s five members, Marty Leonard and Jim Lane, are seeking re-election. Hoping to unseat them are three opponents: engineer Craig Bickley and health care professional Michele Von Luckner, who are running as a slate backed by water board nemesis Monty Bennett; and consultant Keith Annis, who is unaligned.

Not so long ago, if you asked voters to name candidates running for the water board, they wouldn’t have known one name and might have thought you were talking about a ride at Six Flags.

But times have changed. The water board election is now considered the hottest race on the ballot in some circles and it’s been estimated that as much as $2 million will be raised and spent by the five candidates competing for two seats on a five-member board that pays members $150 per meeting (regular board meetings are held once a month).

Recent election cycles have produced serious challengers to incumbents who in past years would have been easily re-elected. This year is no exception.

The election has been hard fought and is expected to be close. Early voting began April 27 and continues through May 5. The early vote has become a crucial factor in elections in recent years but in a tight race, Election Day turnout can be decisive. The top two vote-getters will be elected and all the candidates are scrambling to corral every contestable vote.

For voters, and a for a newspaper contemplating candidate endorsements, this field of highly qualified candidates presents a daunting challenge. How do you choose just two?

All five candidates are solid. All are passionate about the most important issue – in this election and in any election for the water board: maintaining a safe and plentiful water supply for the people served by the Tarrant Regional Water District.

Incumbents Leonard and Lane have long records of commendable public service. Bickley is highly articulate, intelligent and well-informed, and his engineering background gives him unique insight into many of the challenges facing the water district. Von Luckner makes a forceful argument that the water board needs to be more transparent and responsive in its dealings with the public. Keith Annis has a keen intellect, a wry sense of humor and a heartfelt appreciation for the Trinity River and its historical importance as a focal point of our community.

The Business Press has not routinely offered editorial endorsements in elections over the years. Like many newspapers nowadays we are sensitive to readers’ resistance to the idea that their newspaper is “telling me who to vote for.” I don’t believe that was ever the purpose of endorsements – it certainly never was for any newspaper I’ve operated – but I understand why readers would see it that way.

To me, newspapers offered candidate endorsements in the past because our role and reach allowed us more access to candidates and that often gave us understanding and insight that the average voter might not have. In today’s world of instant communication, social media and 24-hour news cycles, many voters can make a convincing argument that they know more about the candidates than we do. Still, in elections that are as crucial to the future of the community and as hotly contested as the 2015 water board race, we are inclined to believe that a Business Press endorsement can be useful, if only as one more sliver of information that voters can use as they piece together the electoral puzzle.

With that in mind, the Business Press editorial board conducted in-depth, face-to-face interviews with all five water board candidates. Then, still hungry for more insight, we organized a public forum in partnership with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters and invited all the candidates to attend. The forum, held at Fort Worth’s Central Library and well-attended by the public, offered us another close-up view of candidates making the case for their election and also interacting with the public.

Unfortunately, the incumbents declined to attend the forum, citing scheduling conflicts. We’ll take them at their word, although we were told by sources who might know that Lane and Leonard were advised by their political handlers not to participate. It’s also possible they simply had no desire to subject themselves to another round of contentious questions and critics’ accusations ranging from incompetence to flat-out corruption. I don’t believe that ducking a public forum sent a message that was helpful to their campaign but it’s not for me to question their motives. They are under no obligation to attend our forum or anyone else’s.

Personally, knowing both Jim Lane and Marty Leonard and deeply appreciating their service to Fort Worth over the years, I have been outraged by the reckless use of the word “corrupt” by critics of the water board.

Leonard has been a tireless volunteer for any number of significant and valuable public causes throughout the years. Her devotion to working with the Lena Pope Home puts her in a league all by herself. Lane has served the public in many capacities while also maintaining his own law practice. Say what you will about the failings of the water board as an institution – and the Business Press has criticized the board on many occasions – Jim Lane and Marty Leonard are not corrupt.

One of the opposition candidates who made that charge early in the campaign, in fact, has since realized that the word has specific legal connotations and that his use of it was inappropriate and ill-advised. Based on statements made by the challengers during our April 29 forum, they all have come to understand that some things, even in a hard-fought campaign, are out of bounds.

In the end, with appreciation for the efforts of all five candidates, the Business Press editorial board settled on two candidates to recommend to the voters: Craig Bickley and Keith Annis. Our endorsement editorial explains the editorial board’s decision in more detail. Read it here.

And with that out of the way, we can all look forward to Election Day – and the conclusion of this year’s water torture.

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

A link to our TRWD forum video:

Richard Connor
Richard Connor is the owner and CEO/Publisher of DRC Media, the parent company of the Fort Worth Business Press. he also owns newspapers in Virginia. Mr. Connor held a number of corporate media executive positions before founding his own company. He is an award-winning columnist and at one time wrote a weekly column on national politics for CQ Politics, the online version of Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Quarterly.

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