Election a slap in the face for Tarrant Regional Water District board

Posted Tuesday, May. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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If the campaign and vote totals in Saturday’s election for three seats on the Tarrant Regional Water District board of directors struck a bit of fear in the hearts of current board members, that would be a good thing.

A slate of three well-funded challengers succeeded in replacing one board member. Mary Kelleher, 50, a Tarrant County juvenile court supervisor, will take the seat held for 26 years by Hal S. Sparks III, 72.

John Basham, the most vocal challenger and the direct recipient of at least $205,000 in campaign funding from two wealthy Dallas residents, narrowly missed being elected. He came in 92 votes behind Vic Henderson, the current board chairman.

The tidal wave of funding for the challengers shocked the incumbents to life in the final days of the campaign. They lost the early vote count across the board and look to have been rescued by a last-minute get-out-the-vote drive with high-profile leadership from Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price.

Price’s popularity with voters and respect among the politically active in Fort Worth is evidenced by the fact that she drew no opponent in her own re-election efforts.

She’s also a client of powerhouse local political consultant Bryan Eppstein, who was brought in to shake the water board incumbents’ campaign out of dormancy into feverish activity in the last week before election day.

But barely alive campaigning has been quite the norm in many water board elections, and that’s the problem. Maybe if board members see themselves more as vulnerable to defeat they’ll put a little more effort into sharing what they do with the people who elect them.

Many of the campaign claims relied on by the challengers — Basham, Kelleher and Timothy Nold — were political hyperbole. The current directors simply can’t be said to have put too little effort into building water supplies for Fort Worth and its other client cities. Nor are they responsible for all the pollution in the Trinity River.

But openness is not the board’s strong suit. It may not quite fit the “secret meetings” label advanced by the challengers, but the water district is not a constituent-friendly organization. It has a spiffy website, but try going there to find out when the next board or committee meeting is or what’s on the agenda.

Want to see what happens at one of those board meetings? Haul yourself over to the district administration building, 800 E. Northside Drive. Governing bodies of many local cities and school districts with comparatively minuscule budgets broadcast their meetings over the Internet.

The district’s business is not minor. It leads the $909 million Trinity Uptown/Trinity River Vision development north and east of downtown. Its 150-mile East Texas pipeline partnership with Dallas is expected to bring 350 million gallons of water per day to North Texas from Lake Palestine.

Who wants to follow this stuff in detail? Well, clearly some East Texas landowners do, because the water district will be taking some of their land for the pipeline. Property owners on Fort Worth’s near north side feel the same about Trinity Uptown.

In the end, it doesn’t matter who wants information about the water district. It’s a public agency and everything it does should be open to public scrutiny in every detail allowable under state law, even if nobody pays attention.

The Star-Telegram Editorial Board did not recommend Basham, Kelleher or Nold in this election. The incumbents got that nod because the Editorial Board respects their knowledge of the Tarrant Regional Water District’s mission and the work they have put into it.

But there’s a lot of room for improvement at the district, most notably in the openness of its operations and responsiveness to its constituents. If the challengers made that point in Saturday’s election, that would be a good thing.

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