Tarrant Regional Water District board elections are like most local elections across Texas every spring — typically low-key, low-dollar campaigns.Not this year.In the last month alone, challenger John Basham reports raising more than $226,000 in contributions. He spent more than $103,000, mostly on consulting and direct mail, including glossy attack fliers that incumbents and water district officials contend contain major distortions, such as suggestions that they spent millions of dollars on a luxury helicopter when in fact it cost $440,000.Basham, a meteorologist who also ran for the board in 2008 and 2010, raised $100,000 in the last month from Bennie Bray, a wealthy Dallas investor and businessman who made headlines in 2010 when his family trust bought the estate of convicted Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff for $5.65 million.“I’m in it to win,” declared Basham, making it clear that he will continue to wage an aggressive campaign in the closing days of the race.Water board officials and incumbents are stunned at the unusually large sums being raised and spent by Basham. The challenger’s totals dwarf the three incumbents on Saturday’s ballot. No incumbent reported raising more than $3,550 or spending more than $15,052 in the past month.The Clean Water Committee, a political action committee supporting the incumbents, raised just more than $35,000 and spent more than $21,856 during the reporting period.“At first, we did not expect a race at all,” said J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision project and development director for the Tarant Regional Water District.“And all of a sudden, four or five mailers hit the street. I’ve never seen anything close to this much money spent on a water district election, Granger said.As a result, the incumbents are suddenly playing catch-up, and the district “is staring at a well-funded smear campaign.”The challengers have complaints about the incumbents and water district officials as well, accusing the district of mailing out its annual report shortly before the election, using taxpayer dollars to promote the incumbents. They also accuse current officials and board members of making decisions behind closed doors.Early voting is already underway, and Tarrant County elections officials report that turnout is high.Seven candidates — including three longtime incumbents — are vying for three open positions on the powerful board. It oversees the Tarrant Regional Water District, which provides water to around 1.7 million people.Vic Henderson, Hal Sparks and Jack Stevens are seeking re-election, and John Basham, Timothy Nold, Mary Kelleher and Dwayne Herring hope to unseat them.Basham, Nold and Kelleher have joined forces and are running as a slate.Water district officials point out that Basham is registered to vote in Parker County and doesn’t even live in the district. Granger said the only reason Basham is eligible to run is that he bought a small piece of land in 2010 from former Fort Worth Councilman Clyde Picht, who is supporting the challenger.One issue roiling the race is a dispute between wealthy landowners in East Texas and the district over a pipeline project that would run through their property.One landowner, Monty Bennett, is suing the water district, alleging that the board repeatedly violated the Open Meetings Act and “rubber-stamped” decisions. The water district’s Integrated Pipeline project would cut through his East Texas ranch, where he has a wildlife preserve.Bennett and his attorney, Bill Brewer, did not return calls seeking comment.Mailings from water board members who are not running for office hinted that Bennett was contributing to Basham’s campaign, but Basham vehemently denied that, saying he is working with a PAC, HillCo Partners, and with a firm, K C Consulting in Austin.“I am not getting anything from Monty Bennett. I went out and found a PAC that stood for open and honest government. I wasn’t going to run unless I had the means to go up against the powers that be,” Basham said.Records show that Basham is getting donations primarily from two sources, both outside Tarrant County — HillCo and Bray.Bray, the $100,000 contributor, owns the Barefoot Ranch, which is in the path of the Integrated Pipeline.The incumbents are getting funds from various donors and lending money to their campaigns, records show.Basham responds to the criticism about his out-of-county donations by pointing out that the incumbents have gotten out-of-state donations, as well as financial support from contractors with ties to the water district.Luxury helicopter?Jim Lane, who serves on the water board and is a candidate in the District 2 Fort Worth City Council race, told the Star-Telegram Thursday that Basham’s mailings are spreading lies suggesting that the district bought a multimillion-dollar helicopter. The mailer showed a large helicopter with leather interior.The $440,000 helicopter owned by the water district does not boast any leather seats. It is used to fly over and inspect pipelines and facilities that are not easy to reach on roads.“They [the candidates running against the incumbents] are destroying a very fine organization; it’s just not true,” Lane said.When asked about the helicopter, Basham contends that a 12-page mailer from the water district does show a “luxurious helicopter.” District officials say the mailer shows that the helicopter is far from luxurious.Basham also questioned why Lane and district officials — not the candidates themselves — are mounting a public defense of the candidates.Henderson, the board president, said Basham’s claims that the board conducts business in secret and that the water district is not concerned about water quality are “erroneous.” But he said he didn’t want to go on the attack.“I’m taking the high road,” he said.Henderson said the water quality of the Trinity River is much improved from when he began serving on the board in the 1980s.“I know what that river was like. It’s very different than it used to be,” he said.The water district is responsible for 27 miles of the river, he said, and has formed partnerships to provide amenities.RobocallsBasham’s campaign is also paying for robocalls in which a small child dubbed “Captain Clean” urges people to vote for the challengers and criticizes the board for failing to maintain good water quality in the Trinity.Picht, the former councilman who supports Basham, Nold and Kelleher, recorded one of the calls. Picht is a longtime critic of the water district who once ran for the board himself and believes the challengers are superior to the incumbents.“The [current] board has not done enough to ensure adequate water resources for the Fort Worth area,” said Picht, who unsuccessfully ran for the water district board in 2006. “You’d think they would have done a lot of work by now to have us a reliable source of water.”Picht has long been a critic of the water district board and the Trinity Uptown project, which he has called a “scam on the public.”He has criticized everything from the way the board has spent money to how some contracts have been granted.He has criticized the board’s decision years ago to hire J.D. Granger, son of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who has spearheaded the project in Washington.Years ago, Picht bought a slice of land in the water district boundaries to ensure that he was eligible to seek a seat on the board. He later sold that land to Basham so he could own land in the district and be an eligible candidate. Staff writers Anna M. Tinsley and John Gravois contributed to this report.
Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696 Twitter: @fwstliz