Tarrant Regional board to consider censuring Mary Kelleher

04/28/2014 4:20 PM

04/28/2014 10:42 PM

In the latest in a series of escalating tensions between the Tarrant Regional Water District board and board member Mary Kelleher, a special meeting has been called for Tuesday to consider censuring the Fort Worth resident, who was elected to the board last year.

The meeting, which convened at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the water district boardroom, is the latest twist in a dispute between Kelleher and the water board that has included open records requests and a series of legal battles.

At the meeting, the board will also discuss hiring outside counsel to look at recent campaign finance reports filed by each water board candidate.

Kelleher said Monday that she doesn’t believe she has done anything wrong and insisted that much of the criticism has come as a result of her asking unpopular questions.

A censure is considered a public reprimand but doesn’t include any sanctions.

“In reality, when an elected official is censured, it usually means that elected official is representing their constituency instead of going along with the powers-at-be,” Kelleher said in an email. “If the 8,942 people who elected me to the TRWD were the ones trying to censure me, I'd be humiliated and looking for a big rock to hide under, but they're not and that's what's most important to me. I work for the people, not the board.”

Censures are unusual but not unprecedented. In June, the Fort Worth school board censured Trustee Ann Sutherland.

The proposed resolution suggests that Kelleher has been working on behalf of Dallas hotelier Monty Bennett, who has a lawsuit against the water district.

Bennett sued the district last year, claiming that the board rubber-stamped staff decisions and violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it approved parts of a $2.3 billion pipeline designed to bring more water from East Texas.

The resolution says, “The Board recognizes that the votes cast by Director Mary Kelleher are not themselves sanctionable but finds that the timing of the votes in connection with the acceptance of campaign contributions from a Dallas County Resident who was suing the Tarrant Regional Water District creates a conflict of interest and the appearance that she is using her Board position for the benefit of her Dallas County based campaign contributor.”

In February, the board voted 4-1, with Kelleher casting the dissenting vote, to start eminent domain proceedings for 11.6 acres in Henderson County that run through Bennett’s ranch for the integrated pipeline.

When completed, the pipeline would nearly double the amount of water Tarrant Regional can pump from Cedar Creek Lake and Richland-Chambers Reservoir in East Texas. The project is being built in a partnership with Dallas Water Utilities, which will use the pipeline to bring water from Lake Palestine.

The 11.6-acre tract is part of the LAZY W Municipal Utility District, which runs through Bennett’s property. Bennett is board president of LAZY W, according to court documents.

Before making any decision on the resolution, board member Jim Lane said he wanted to hear what Kelleher had to say and to see that she got a “full and fair hearing.”

Board President Vic Henderson couldn’t be reached for comment, but questions were directed to the district’s outside counsel, Ross Fischer of Austin.

Finance reports

Fischer, a former Texas Ethics Commission chairman, said the censure resolution was initiated by Henderson. Henderson was looking at Kelleher’s conduct, and Fischer was asked to determine whether it “violated any applicable standards,” Fischer said.

If the board approves an audit of finance reports, Fischer said, his office could look at the accuracy of reports over the last two election cycles and “what reports are outstanding.”

The resolution says Kelleher violated standards of conduct for several reasons, including voting against an appeal of Bennett’s lawsuit on Sept. 17 and accepting an in-kind contribution on Dec. 4, 2013, from MJB Operating, where Bennett is one of the owners.

The resolution also accuses Kelleher of making eight written “admissions” of allegations in a lawsuit by former water board candidate John Basham and for “refusing to excuse herself from executive session discussions of litigation in which Director Kelleher was an adverse party” even though the water board had passed a resolution on Jan. 29 that she not take part.

The resolution also said she spoke before the Fort Worth City Council on April 8 and incorrectly claimed the water board opposed the city’s making twice-a-week water restrictions permanent.

‘Abuse of power’

Kelleher said she isn’t to blame for her ongoing problems with the water district.

“This is about bad leadership, abuse of power, and loss of control by the board,” she said.

On Monday, state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, got involved in the dispute, filing an open records request with the water district similar to one filed earlier this month by state Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Kaufman. Gooden had been asking for many of the same documents as Kelleher.

“Setting aside any allegations that have been made about TRWD actions, it is completely unacceptable for TRWD to withhold documents that state law requires it to produce,” Burnam said in a letter to water district General Manager Jim Oliver.

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