Politics & Government

April 29, 2014

Tarrant Regional water board votes to censure member Mary Kelleher

The TRWD board also approved the hiring of an outside auditor to look candidates campaign finance reports.

With a room full of Mary Kelleher supporters on-hand, the Tarrant Regional Water District board voted on Tuesday to censure Kelleher.

Board member Jim Lane abstained from the 3-1 vote. Kelleher cast the no vote.

The reprimand has little power but show’s the board’s displeasure with Kelleher who they claim has violated the board’s “applicable standards.”

The board also voted 4-0, with Kelleher abstaining, to have outside counsel Ross Fischer conduct an audit of water board candidates campaign finance reports.

Following the decision, board President Vic Henderson said in a statement that the censure vote “is directly tied to her conflicts of interest with Dallas County resident Monty Bennett; her breach of duties in Tarrant Regional Water District litigation, and her misrepresentations before the Fort Worth City Council.”

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 to the DFW area.

When the board said she incorrectly told the Fort Worth City Council the water board’s position on making twice-a-week water restrictions permanent and showed a video of her statement before the council, Kelleher replied: “I just don’t see it.”

After the meeting, Kelleher insisted her votes are her own and she is not acting on Bennett’s behalf.

“If there had been ties to the campaign contributions, I would have absolutely refused them,” Kelleher said. “I felt comfortable there were no issues, no conflict of interest because ultimately I’m voting how I want to vote.”

Before the TRWD board voted to censure Kelleher, some in the audience urged the TRWD board to “drop it.” Protestors also carried signs into the meeting room and stood outside by windows expressing support and urging TRWD to “stop hiding documents” and “let us vote.”

The document reference was related to Kelleher’s Open Records requests. The voting reference was related to the water district’s election being moved from May 2014 to May 2015.

Lawsuits in state and federal court were both filed trying to force TRWD to hold an election this year, but the Texas Supreme Court and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals both refused to an order an election.

‘Bullying’ alleged

Several state representatives attended Tuesday’s special meeting, including Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth; Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford and Stefani Carter, R-Richardson. Carter serves on the board of Bennett’s hotel company, Ashford Hospitality Prime, and also received a total $15,000 in campaign contributions from Bennett in 2012 and 2013.

Stickland, who received campaign contribution totaling $15,000 from Bennett in 2013 and 2014, said he would also be filing an Open Records request. Burnam and Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Kaufman, who has received campaign contributions and in-kind mail totaling $90,000 from Bennett since 2011 has already filed an Open Records request.

“Obviously there is some bullying going on here,” Stickland said. “It smells really bad and I absolutely want to get to the bottom of this.”

Burnam said he isn’t concerned with Kelleher’s ongoing disagreements with various board members or the staff. His concern is why she isn’t she getting all of the documents she has requested.

“Technically, the water district is a creation of the state,” Burnam said. “We’ll see if they comply with the law.”

Henderson, the board president, said he had no problem with the legislative scrutiny.

“I’m really happy to have them to take an interest,” Henderson said.

The water district’s ongoing dispute with Bennett revolves around the integrated pipeline, which 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 transport water from Lake Palestine.

An 11.6-acre tract the water district is seeking cuts through Bennett’s ranch but is part of the LAZY W Municipal Utility District. Bennett is board president of LAZY W, according to court documents. The water district has started eminent domain proceedings but a hearing has yet to take place in Henderson County.

‘Fuel on the fire’

John Basham, who has been a three-time candidate for the board, said the censure effort may backfire on the water district, noting it has generated more support for Kelleher.

“They sure threw fuel on the fire,” Basham said. “… She got a lot of attention out of this.”

But Basham said the public shouldn’t just focus on the censure, suggesting the public should also be looking the audit of candidates campaign finance reports, which will include him.

“They want to get rid of her,” Basham said. “That is their focus, which is just amazing. If she is a thorn in their side, they should just ignore her.”

Lane, who abstained from the censure vote but voted in favor of the campaign finance audit, said Basham’s assertion that the board wants to get rid of Kelleher is “nonsense.” But he said the audit “would shine a light” on what is actually going on in the water board races.

Lane also said he has no problems with legislators filing Open Records requests with the district.

“They’re going to get the same thing as everybody else,” Lane said. “We’ve complied with the law.”

Pipeline issue

As for the ongoing dispute with Bennett, Lane said residents need to realize that section of the pipeline is being built for Dallas Water Utilities — not for Tarrant Regional. The water district is building the pipeline but Lane said Dallas has input on the route of the pipeline to Lake Palestine.

Rerouting the pipeline would cost $6-8 million and impact as many as 30 landowners, the water district said.

“This all about the highest and best use of taxpayer money,” Lane said. “Dallas would not under any circumstances entertain moving the pipeline. Dallas has said ‘no’ and our engineers have said ‘no.’ ”

Lane also expressed frustration that Kelleher and other potential candidates won’t take any criminal allegations that have been circulated in campaign fliers to the District Attorney’s office. During Tuesday’s meeting, Kelleher said she won’t consider bringing allegations to current District Attorney Joe Shannon and would wait until former district judge Sharen Wilson, who won the GOP primary and doesn’t face an opponent this fall, is sworn-in as district attorney next year.

Wilson also received a $5,000 donation from Bennett during her district attorney’s race.

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