No foul play: Board members say they don’t hunt on water district land

Posted Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Tarrant Regional Water District members acknowledged Monday that their employees have been allowed to hunt for free on a roughly 560-acre piece of district-owned land along Lake Bridgeport for many years.

But the board members — who during a spring campaign leading up to the May 11 election were accused of keeping their own private hunting ground — said they themselves had never taken advantage of the land.

“I’ve been here 30 years and no board member has ever hunted on it,” said Jim Oliver, general manager of the district, which is responsible for securing long-term water resources for the greater Fort Worth area.

The board meeting discussion came during a fiery, one-hour exchange Monday morning between four long-time board members and a new fifth member, Mary Kelleher, who was elected May 11 on promises to end what she described as lavish spending practices.

During the campaign earlier this year, Kelleher ran as part of a slate with two other candidates — John Basham and Timothy Nold — and the trio ran a well-funded campaign backed by wealthy Dallas landowners who opposed the water district’s plans to build a pipeline to Lake Palestine in East Texas. During that period, fliers from Kelleher, Basham and Nold were mailed to residents alleging that the incumbent board members benefited from a hunting lease at Lake Bridgeport, about an hour west of Fort Worth.

Basham and Nold ultimately weren’t elected, but Kelleher received the most votes of seven people on the ballot.

Board President Vic Henderson, who was re-elected in the May 11 contest, clarified Monday that there is no such hunting lease. But he did say there is a property in the flood plain on the lake’s western edge that water district employees are given access to for hunting and fishing. He said an in-house “lottery” drawing is held to determine which water district employees get to visit the land, which is west of Sid Richardson Boy Scout Ranch.

“I’ve been there one time in 26 years,” said Henderson, who said his visit was just to get a look at the land, not to hunt.

Henderson added that it was important for water district workers to periodically occupy the land, to keep it out of the hands of poachers and vandals.

“It’s acreage we have, Mary, that was being abused,” he said.

Kelleher challenged the other board members, “Why don’t we take a field trip up there and go see it?”

Oliver said the land, which is in Jack County just across the Wise County line, is used by “mainly by our operations employees, who generally can’t afford to go out and have a deer lease.”

Basham, who was in the audience during Monday’s meeting, later said he felt that even if board members themselves didn’t hunt on the land, the water district’s actions still violated a state law prohibiting the use of public land by employees for personal use.

In her third meeting as a board member, Kelleher engaged in a sometimes-heated back-and-forth with Henderson and fellow board members Jack Stevens — who also was re-elected May 11 — Jim Lane and Marty Leonard.

Feisty exchange

At one point, Lane strongly objected to Kelleher’s campaign tactics accusing board members of not only holding their own hunting lease, but also owning a luxury helicopter. Lane pointed out that the district’s helicopter is a much cheaper model than the picture of an aircraft shown on Kelleher’s campaign fliers.

Lane brought examples of Kelleher’s fliers to the meeting.

At one point, after Lane challenged Kelleher to be more specific in her complaints, Lane and Kelleher engaged in a brief staredown. Lane later told Kelleher, “I apologize,” although he didn’t elaborate.

Other board members also took Kelleher to task for submitting lengthy requests for information, including large batches of emails and records of executive sessions, then complaining publicly when the staff couldn’t meet unrealistic deadlines.

Also during Monday’s meeting, Kelleher recounted an incident in which she requested documents from the water district staff and was confronted angrily by Oliver. She later wrote a letter to Oliver documenting the incident.

“I take very seriously my responsibilities as an elected official, and I expect that my attempts to provide the necessary oversight in the future will not be met with raised voice, chest-pounding, disrespect and other behavior unacceptable of a public servant, let alone the senior executive member of the TRWD,” Kelleher wrote in a June 25 letter to Oliver.

Asked about the letter last week, Oliver said it was “water under the bridge” and he intended to work with Kelleher.

“It was very exaggerated,” Oliver said of Kelleher’s version of events.

Kelleher, Basham and Nold ran as a slate backed by Dallas landowners Monty Bennett and Bennie Bray, both of whom oppose a joint project of the water district and counterparts in Dallas to build a pipeline bringing Lake Palestine water to the Metroplex.

Later Monday afternoon, the water district board held an executive session, and Kelleher left before the board reconvened in open session for a vote. By a 4-0 vote, with Kelleher absent, the board agreed to hire the Kelly Hart law firm to represent them in a lawsuit brought against them by Bennett.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson

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Tarrant County water board squabble

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