February 6, 2014

Judge won’t order Tarrant water district to call a May election

The attorney representing former board candidate John Basham and others said his clients may appeal to federal court.

A judge said Thursday that he won’t order the Tarrant Regional Water District to call an election in May for two board seats.

After an hourlong hearing, state District Judge David Evans denied the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary injunction and said he would grant motions to dismiss the suit filed by John Basham, who has run unsuccessfully three times for a seat on the water district board.

Basham sued in August, saying that the water district should not have moved an election originally scheduled for May to May 2015.

Basham’s suit said the district, which was following a law passed by the 2013 Legislature, violated the Texas Constitution and the state water code.

If an election had been called for May, board members Jim Lane and Marty Leonard would have been up for re-election. The board’s five members serve staggered, four-year terms.

Basham was joined in the suit by Darlia Hobbs and Texans for Government Transparency, a nonprofit, grassroots group formed late last year. It is based in Tarrant County. Basham is president of the organization.

Moments after the judge made his remarks from the bench, attorney Matthew Rinaldi, who represents Basham and Hobbs, said he would need to confer with his clients before deciding their next move.

But when asked if there was a possibility of appealing to federal court, Rinaldi said, “Absolutely.” But he must wait until he sees the language of the judge’s final order, which is expected next week.

Water district officials issued a statement that they are satisfied with the ruling.

“We are pleased the judge denied the request for an injunction, and agreed that state law directs that the next board election be held in 2015,” the statement said.

On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that a separate lawsuit that also calls for a May water district election should first be heard in state court.

The Rev. Kyev Tatum and several relatives sued in federal court last month, saying that they were denied the right to vote and that their constitutional rights were violated when the Legislature changed the water board election date from even- to odd-numbered years.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Reed C. O’Connor wrote, “The Court finds an unsettled issue of state law.” He cited precedent that “a federal court should abstain from exercising its jurisdiction when difficult and unsettled questions of state law must be resolved before a substantial federal constitutional question can be decided.”

The “unsettled issue” is whether a House bill setting Tarrant water board elections for May of odd-numbered years conflicts with the Texas Constitution.

The suit filed by Basham and Hobbs contended that no board member could serve longer than a four-year term and that the water district must hold an election in May for the seats held by Lane and Leonard.

In its pleadings, the water district has noted that the Legislature passed a bill that stated its elections would be held in odd-numbered years.

The bill, filed in the 2013 legislative session by state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said water district elections are to be held in May of odd-numbered years but did not specify whether Leonard and Lane could serve beyond the four-year terms they were elected for.

Lane, who was not present at Thursday’s hearing, has said he voted in 2012 against changing the election date.

“I have a contract with the voters, “ Lane said. “If they want to throw my fanny out after four years, they should have the right to do so.”

Basham’s most recent run for the water district board was in May 2012. He was part of a slate known as BNK with candidates Mary Kelleher and Timothy Nold.

Kelleher was the top vote-getter among seven candidates who were competing for three board positions. Basham came in fourth. Incumbents Jack Stevens and board president Vic Henderson were re-elected. Board member Hal Sparks lost his seat.

Basham initially asked for a ballot recount but dropped the request before a recount was completed when it appeared he was not going to have enough votes to change the outcome.

Basham and Kelleher were the only ones who testified Thursday at the hourlong hearing.

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