Tarrant Regional Water District’s newest board member, Mary Kelleher, said Tuesday that she thought the public would be part of deciding who becomes the district’s next general manager.
She said she was surprised to learn after the meeting that the board had named Dan Buhman, currently the district’s deputy general manager, as the new general manager, starting July 1.
In an interview with the Fort Worth Report, Kelleher said she did not object to Buhman’s hiring because she thought she had reached a compromise with other board members that allowed for the public and the media to vet him.
“Dan hasn’t been officially designated as the new general manager, but he was offered and accepted an offer for the position,” she said.
After Kelleher’s interview with the Report, the water district issued this contradictory statement:
“The Tarrant Regional Water District’s board of directors announced today that they have named Dan Buhman as the agency’s seventh general manager in its 100-year history,” the press release said. “Buhman will begin serving in his new role on July 1.”
Buhman will earn $350,000 annually, Water District Spokesman Chad Lorance said. The current general manager, Jim Oliver, earns $323,294 annually.
The confusion is the latest in a hiring process that some have criticized as opaque and rushed.
During a May 11 meeting, the board delayed swearing in Kelleher and excluded her from a closed session to discuss selecting a general manager.
Some open government attorneys also said the reason for the closed session should have been more clearly stated on the May 11 agenda.
Longtime Fort Worth resident Doreen Geiger was one of three people who asked the board to delay the vote Tuesday so there could be more input.
“With such an important hiring decision to make and with only five board members, I would have expected all five of the continuing and newly elected members to interview the top three finalists,” Geiger said. “I am asking that no vote be taken.”
In an interview with the Report after the meeting, Geiger said she felt the hiring represented an opportunity to make the district more transparent. She said she wasn’t sure whether that would happen under Buhman’s leadership.
“He may be the perfect person to lead,” Geiger said, “but what I don’t know is, if he’s worked all along for Jim (Oliver) and Jim is retiring, how involved Jim is still going to be in the water district.”
But she saw some encouraging signs of openness during the meeting Tuesday. First, the board let resident Jackee Cox make a public comment despite being late to the meeting. Second, board member Leah King described the hiring process for the general manager and the qualifications and experience of the candidates.
The board hired Lehman Associates in February to conduct a national search for retiring general manager Jim Oliver’s replacement. She and Marty Leonard worked with the agency to field 100 candidates and interview five finalists for the position, King said. Some candidates were second in a command at water districts bigger than Tarrant County’s, she said.
“I feel like all we did was just barely open the door a little bit, but a little bit is better than the door not getting opened at all,” Geiger said.
Lon Burnam, a former state representative for District 90 and water district critic, wasn’t as encouraged as Geiger.
Although he wished Buhman well on the job, Burnam said, “I’m afraid he’s had seven years of bad training and that we won’t see the meaningful changes at the water district that many of us want to see.”
In the past seven years under retiring general manager Jim Oliver, the water district had a problem with nepotism and secrecy, Burnam said.
The water district should have disclosed the names of the top two or three candidates to the public before hiring a general manager, Burnam said. This is done when a city hires a police chief or a school board hires a superintendent, he said. King previously told the Fort Worth Report that the water district couldn’t disclose the names of the candidates because their employers, who did not know they were looking for a new job, could let them go.
“That’s an excuse,” Burnam said, “but not a good one.”
Marty Leonard, who acted as president after Kelleher was sworn in and replaced Jack Stevens on the board, declined to comment after the meeting and referred the Report to the water district’s press release about Buhman’s hiring.
“In the end, we just felt like Dan was the most qualified and experienced person to lead this organization going forward,” Leonard wrote in the release.
Before she saw the district’s press release, Kelleher was confident.
“I feel very optimistic that moving forward there’s going to be a lot more communication between the community and the water board,” Kelleher said.
After hearing about the wording in the press release, she described it as “unfortunate.”
Leah King didn’t respond to the Fort Worth Report’s request for comment and James Hill declined to comment.
Board member Jim Lane said there was a reason King and Leonard comprised the search committee for GM and he trusted their recommendation based on their unique qualifications.
“They are the two most popular vote-getters,” Lane said. “They have the business experience to make these kinds of decisions, and I think the community owes them a big thank you, and this board does, too.”
Lane added that the names for alternative candidates were not made public after Lehman Associates assured the candidates disclosing names would be atypical because the water board functions as a company, as well as a public entity.
This story was updated on May 21 to include the general manager’s salary.