The May 1 election could significantly shift the balance of power in the Tarrant Regional Water District.
Most of the current board members overseeing the district have served for decades.
They have often been in lockstep with district staff, especially when it comes to the Central City Flood Control/Panther Island Project, which has garnered criticism over the years because of its minimal progress.
This majority includes Jack Stevens, a retired engineer who serves as president of the board and was first elected in 2004.
Stevens and six other people are vying for three of the five seats on the board. The top three vote-getters earn a seat.
Three candidates appear to form an alliance
Like Stevens, Leah King and James Hill are incumbents. The difference is they were both elected to the board in 2017 and aren’t optimistic that long-promised federal funds needed to finish Panther Island will come. The two share that – as well as a platform of transparency – in common with challenger Charles “C.B.” Team.
King said the district hasn’t traditionally done a good job of explaining what it’s doing to the public. For example, few know about how successful the district has been in nearing completion of the Integrated Pipeline Project, she said. Records show that the water district and Dallas Water Utilities embarked on the $2.3 billion project together. It is expected to bring an additional 350 million gallons of water per day to the metroplex from reservoirs in East Texas.
“It’s going to yield enormous results,” King said, “but I’m afraid many people don’t know about that win and the same holds true for Panther Island. It has the potential for it to be great.”
Hill said that when he first took his seat on the board and received a quarterly update about the IPL Project, he asked district staff to make one for Panther Island.
“I was like, ‘Time out. Why is it we’re doing this on one $1 billion project and not the other?’” Hill said.
If re-elected, he said, he’d continue asking the tough questions.
As an example, “Internal relationships between employees is something I’ve asked quite a bit of questions about. We have a lot of folks who are related to each other,” Hill said of district staff.
Hill, King and Team say they all bring a unique and needed perspective to the board. King’s work in the nonprofit world means she has the pulse of the community’s needs, she said. Hill said he’d continue to deftly scrutinize any number the district staff put before him, and Team said his experience in real estate would be valuable as the district acquires land for the Panther Island Project and others.
Team last ran for a seat on the board in 2019 and lost.
“I want to see if I can do some good and get out. This is not a lifelong thing for me, and I think that’s a little unique for this board,” he said. “The last time I ran against two people who had been on the board for 14 years, but this time the current incumbents have been there for four years and are bringing some new ideas, but the other has been there for 17 years. That’s a long time.”
Stevens, the longtime incumbent, could not be reached for comment.
New and differing perspectives
Water board candidates Jeremy Raines and Mary Kelleher differ greatly from King, Hill and Team when it comes to Panther Island.
Raines doesn’t want to give up on the federal government funding Panther Island.
“The Army Corps of Engineers did a study in 2008 that said that 86% of our current levy system no longer met the needs for a 100-year flood,” Raines said, adding that a lot has changed since the federal government last said “no,” including the head of the Office of Budget and Management.
“I believe there’s just always a way to find solutions to problems even if you don’t solve the problem as quickly as you want it to or in the exact way you want to,” he said.
Kelleher doesn’t want Panther Island to proceed at all.
“I truly do not believe that’s a flood control project,” she said. “I believe it’s economic development, and it scares me to think about them playing with Mother Nature by diverting the river and taking down the levees that have protected Fort Worth since 1949.”
Plus, she said, the cost, now estimated to be more than $1 billion, has gone up too much.
Raines and Kelleher also bring new ideas to the table, ideas they say are in line with the water district’s mission to provide water, flood control and recreational opportunities.
Raines, who lives on the west side of Fort Worth, described running a half-marathon with friends recently because he had access to the water district’s trail system.
“But that’s not true for everyone. That’s not true for someone who lives on the far northside who doesn’t have a car. We can work with people like Streams and Valleys to help provide access to trails and make this really great amenity accessible to everyone,” he said.
While Kelleher said she’d like to lessen the district’s reliance on pipelines for water by storing rainwater underground.
She said she pushed for that during her time on the board from 2013-2017.
“I’m big on transparency, too,” she added. “After I was elected, they started livestreaming the meetings so people could actually see what’s going on there.”
Glenda Murray Thompson is also running for a seat on the board, but the Report could not reach her for comment.
The new board will have pivotal work to do: Replace longtime District General Manager Jim Oliver who is retiring this year; complete the IPL project; and get Panther Island out of a federal funding logjam.
These tasks require heightened transparency, candidates say.
Stevens told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial Board that he’d like to find Oliver’s successor before the election.
His opponents think that would be a mistake.
“It’s that kind of stuff that I think the taxpayers and ratepayers of Fort Worth are kind of sick and tired of,” Team said.
Kelleher said the Star-Telegram description of her in that same editorial as a “disruptor” chafed at first.
“But then I actually looked it up in the dictionary, and it says, ‘someone that challenges the status quo in an attempt to bring positive change,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do,’” she said.
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter.