The Tarrant Regional Water District’s newest board member was shut out of discussions Tuesday about the hiring of a general manager.
The action came despite pleas from the public that the re-elected board members keep their campaign promise of transparency.
Jackee Cox, a retired attorney living in Fort Worth, and Lon Burnam, a former state representative for District 90, questioned why the board was meeting in closed session before Mary Kelleher was sworn in.
Kelleher, Leah King and James Hill earned the most votes May 1 out of seven candidates vying for three of the spots on the board.
This means that board president Jack Stevens’ 17-year service is coming to an end. Since King and Hill were elected for a second consecutive term, they were included in the closed session Tuesday. They ran on a platform of transparency with Charles “C.B.” Team, who wasn’t elected May 1.
Kelleher isn’t expected to be sworn in until May 18. She first served on the board from 2013 to 2017.
Cox and Burnam also questioned why the posted reason for the closed session was to “deliberate on personnel matters.” Cox suspected the board was really meeting to discuss General Manager Jim Oliver’s replacement and thought the reason for the closed session should have said as much.
Cox told the Fort Worth Report before the meeting that these two actions amounted to “a slap in the face of the voters who picked candidates who promised greater transparency in TRWD activities going forward.”
In an interview with the Report after the meeting, King said she did not know why the board met in closed session before canvassing the votes and swearing in Kelleher. She said Stevens typically works with district staff and an attorney to create the agenda, although she said she did not know if that was the case for this meeting.
District Spokesman Chad Lorance said the district is required to canvass the vote for board between 3 and 11 days after the election, but there is no deadline by which board members must be sworn in.
“With that being said, our protocol (dating back to 1978) has been to swear in incoming directors at the next regularly scheduled monthly board meeting, which is next Tuesday, May 18. There have been numerous times in the past where we do both at the regularly scheduled monthly board meeting because the date of the election was later and we could still meet canvassing requirements. However, we were not able to accomplish both at the same time this year,” Lorance said.
King also said that, in her experience, the board typically gives a vague reason for its closed sessions concerning employees to protect those employees’ privacy.
Lorance added, “We comply with all the applicable laws and provide the public with notice of the general topics to be discussed. However, staff isn’t privy to the actual discussions amongst the board members.”
During today’s closed session, King said, she and fellow board member Marty Leonard brought Hill, Stevens and Jim Lane up to speed on who they had interviewed for the position and who the finalist is for general manager. King said Kelleher would have an opportunity to meet with the finalist, whom she declined to name, before being sworn in.
King also said the board would not hire this person until after Kelleher is sworn in.
Kelleher said she thought being shut out of the closed session on Tuesday was strange, but she was hopeful she would be included in the hiring discussions in the future.
“I just hope they don’t expect us to make a vote at the next meeting without the board members having a chance to vet who they selected. I have a lot of questions,” Kelleher told the Report as she waited for a call from Jan Lehman, a consultant hired to help the board with a national search for general manager.
Neither Hill nor Stevens could be immediately reached for comment by the Report on Tuesday.
Joe Larsen, who serves on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said Tuesday’s posted agenda did not comply with the Texas Open Meetings Act.
He pointed to a 1986 the Supreme Court of Texas ruling. Then, the court ruled that the board of trustees for Austin ISD erred when it provided only a general notice of meeting in closed session to discuss personnel matters and failed to disclose on its agenda that it would be discussing the hiring of a superintendent.
“The test is the more legitimate the public interest is in the personnel matter, the more specific the subject matter has to be stated on the agenda,” Larsen said.
Cox said Tuesday’s meeting did not change her perception of the district or its board.
“The actions taken in open session meetings seem always to be primed to move forward with little or no discussion, so I am left with the distinct impression that most elected officials regularly discuss most of their important decisions in closed sessions or in conversations with staff that occur outside the meetings,” she said.
Still, she said, she is hopeful that will one day change.
“I am not betting I made converts today, but it seemed worthwhile to share the sentiment. I hope for an eventual shift in behavior. I keep believing in the possibility of responsive government,” Cox said.
King said she remained committed to increasing transparency as a district board member – and not just in name only.
“I don’t participate in the wording of the agenda and so, if it caused confusion, I think that’s something the district as a whole should take under advisement and work to provide more clarity to the discussions to the extent possible,” she said.