Another chapter closed Thursday in the continuing saga of the Tarrant Regional Water District and some of its persistent antagonists when a federal district judge dismissed a lawsuit that would have required the water district to hold elections this year.
The plaintiffs in the case, Rev. Kyev Tatum and three relatives, had charged that TRWD violated the Texas and U.S. Constitutions by denying them the right to vote when board elections were moved from even- to odd-numbered years and thus extended the terms of incumbent directors Marty Leonard and Jim Lane.
The court refused to issue an injunction or force an election, ruling that Leonard and Lane could serve until 2015, when the water district will call its next election in the month of May.
This was the second suit filed trying to force an election, but a state district judge earlier last month ruled against plaintiffs that included a Tarrant County-based grassroots group and John Basham, who has failed three times in bids to be elected to the water district board.
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Much of the antagonism toward the board has been fueled by Dallas millionaire Monty Bennett, who has been fighting to keep TRWD from running a water pipeline through his East Texas ranch, and who funded the campaigns of Basham and two other candidates for the board. A Bennett-backed candidate who won election, Mary Kelleher, also has a suit against the TRWD that would force its general manager and others to answer questions under oath.
The politics and personality conflicts aside, both the state and federal courts ruled properly. The changing of election days — and a one-year extension of terms for Lane and Leonard — has nothing to do with violating constitutional rights, but everything to do with being able to conduct fair and efficient elections.
The election process became a bit more complicated in 2011 when Congress did a noble thing by amending the Uniform Military Overseas Voters Act, requiring that Armed Forces personnel outside the country be mailed absentee ballots 45 days before an election.
To make that happen, county election officials were faced with the dilemma of trying to conduct March primary (and May runoff) elections at the same time when many non-partisan elections in municipalities, school districts and special taxing districts were also holding elections.
The state Legislature, to help mitigate those logistical and possibly costly problems, passed a bill that allowed those local entities to change their elections to odd-numbered years. To do that, for councils and boards with staggered terms, it meant some members’ terms would be extended until the next election was called.
The TRWD, along with the Fort Worth school district, Tarrant County College District and Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, moved the election from even to odd years. The city of Benbrook, White Settlement and the Lake Worth school district moved their elections from May until November.
“I’m not sure how we would have conducted the May 2012 elections if these entities had not changed their election cycles, especially TRWD, FWISD and TCCD (our largest customers) in the even-numbered years,” Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board last year.
Raborn said the change also saves money for the entities involved “because they are able to share election expenses with the city of Fort Worth in the odd-numbered years.”
Ideally there should be no extension of terms, but the water district and others did the prudent thing in doing what was best for the voters and the election process overall.
Federal Judge Reed O’Connor did say in his ruling that while the TRWD could extend the “tenure” of directors Leonard and Lane, it could not extend their “terms,” implying that the board will need to appoint them for another year when their terms officially expire in May.
The board is consulting its attorney about what action, if any, to take.