February 28, 2014

Federal judge dismisses suit against Tarrant Regional Water District

The judge says two water board members may serve for a fifth year.

A federal judge Thursday refused to order the Tarrant Regional Water District to call an election this year and said board members Marty Leonard and Jim Lane could continue to serve until the May 2015 elections.

The Rev. Kyev Tatum of Fort Worth and three relatives had sued the district. U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor denied Tatum’s motion for a preliminary injunction and dismissed the suit.

In the suit, the plaintiffs said they were denied the right to vote when the Legislature changed the water district’s board election date from even- to odd-numbered years. By moving the election by a year, it extended the terms of Leonard and Lane from four to five years.

The suit, which included Tatum’s brother Archie, and their wives Tonya and Hershey Ann, also said the water district violated the Texas and U.S. constitutions by moving the election to 2015.

“The Court concludes Texas law does not require an election in May 2014 for the positions held by Lane and Leonard,” O’Connor wrote. “Having found no election is required in May 2014, Plaintiffs failed to prove a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.”

“We are very pleased with Judge O’Connor’s ruling,” water district officials said in a statement. “The decision to move the election had nothing to do with violating the constitutional rights of voters. It was based on mandates issued by the state Legislature to create a uniform election date that protected the voting rights of overseas military personnel. After receiving favorable rulings recently in both the federal and state courts, we will continue with plans to call for an election in May 2015.”

Tatum’s attorney, Matthew Rinaldi, couldn’t be reached Thursday afternoon for comment.

The deadline to call an election for May 10 is Friday.

Both Tatum and John Basham, who has run three times for the water board, filed suits arguing that Tarrant Regional violated the Texas Constitution by not holding board elections in 2014. In the Basham suit, state District Judge David Evans refused earlier this month to order the district to hold an election. That case was appealed to the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.

In his suit, Basham was joined 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.

The Tatum and Basham suits are two of several legal actions against the water district.

In January, board member Mary Kelleher filed a petition that would compel Jim Oliver, Tarrant Regional’s general manager, and other employees to answer questions under oath. Under Texas law, a petition for depositions may be filed by a person seeking to gather facts before filing a lawsuit.

Last March, Dallas businessman Monty Bennett sued the water district, saying it violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it approved parts of the $2.3 billion pipeline project that will bring more water from East Texas to Dallas and Tarrant Regional. The lawsuit contended the board “rubber-stamped” a decision by water district staffers and committees, with no public input.

The district challenged the jurisdiction of Bennett’s lawsuit but that motion was denied in 153rd District Court. Tarrant Regional appealed to the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth, which has not ruled.

Last week, the water district board voted 4-1 to start eminent domain proceedings for a section of pipeline that will run through Bennett’s ranch in Henderson County in East Texas.

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