When he was the water district board president, Jack Stevens unilaterally directed staff in March to pay retiring general manager Jim Oliver more than $300,000 in extra compensation.
Leah King, who is the new president of the Tarrant Regional Water District board, made a motion during a special meeting Tuesday morning to revoke Stevens’ direction to staff. The motion passed unanimously.
After the board met in closed session for about two hours with the law firm Thompson and Horton, King said in a statement that the board had learned of Stevens’ action during its June 15 meeting. Stevens had directed the human resources department to place 2,093 hours of additional paid leave into Oliver’s employee account, which meant he’d be eligible for more than $300,000 in extra compensation, she said.
“The compensation decision for Jim Oliver may be unlawful, the process may have been improper, and certainly, in my opinion, the decision was ill-advised and not reflective of the good and transparent government you should expect from this board,” King said in a statement.
“The Texas Constitution prohibits a public entity, like TRWD, from gifting public funds that do not serve a public purpose and do not result in a return benefit for the important functions of TRWD. The Texas Constitution also prohibits public entities from providing excess compensation retroactively for past services rendered,” she added.
It appears likely that no money was actually paid to Oliver. Stevens could not be reached for comment. Through water district spokesman Chad Lorance, Oliver declined to comment.
Oliver’s salary is $323,294.40. According to the district’s paid leave policy, revised Jan. 1, 2019, “full-time status employees will accrue paid leave up to a maximum of 1,040 hours as long as they are receiving a paycheck from the district.” The district also requires them to use a designated amount of paid leave per calendar year. Employees with 15 years of service must use a minimum of 80 hours per year. Oliver was hired on June 1, 1983.
The policy also states that after the employees take the minimum hours of paid leave per year, they can be paid for any unused paid leave hours in excess of 500 hours. The payment cannot exceed $10,000 though and there’s a line at the end of the policy that reads, “Exceptions to this policy may be made by the General Manager, Deputy General Manager, Assistant General Manager, or Board Members at any time.”
After the meeting, King declined to explain why Thompson and Horton had been consulted rather than the water district’s general counsel, Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell, Kelly and Taplett.
Dan Buhman, who will become general manager on Thursday, picked Thompson and Horton. He wrote in a statement that after doing some research, he felt it “was the most qualified firm to assist us in this situation.”
Buhman declined to answer a follow up question by the Fort Worth Report regarding whether it was awkward or a conflict of interest to select a firm to investigate a matter concerning his predecessor.
None of the board members the Report reached Tuesday would say what they hoped the new law firm would do for them and whether the other law firm still represents the district. A representative from Pope Hardwicke could not be immediately reached for comment. Board Members Jim Lane and Marty Leonard said Pope Hardwicke was the district’s general counsel when they were first elected to the board in 2006.
The Report submitted several Texas Public Information Act requests. One was for a copy of the Pope Hardwicke’s firm’s contract with the district. District spokesman Chad Lorance said the district would make the responsive information available to the Report on Wednesday. The Thompson and Horton attorneys present Tuesday, Carlos Lopez and Kathryn Long, also declined to comment. Information about them online shows Lopez’s practice areas include government while Long’s include special investigations.
The board skipping plans to honor Oliver at its June 15 meeting after a long closed session indicated something was amiss. The changing power dynamics of the board were also on display then as board members King, James Hill and Mary Kelleher voted to make King president while Leonard and Lane voted against that.
King, Hill and Kelleher were the top three vote-getters at an election earlier this summer, ousting Stevens, a retired engineer with Vought Aircraft who had served on the board since 2004. Lane and Leonard were not up for re-election then.
The water district’s activities rose to prominence in the past decade because of its failed efforts to obtain federal funding for a flood control project that some say could be an economic boon to an area north of downtown that’s historically been industrial. On the campaign trail, Kelleher expressed the concern that some involved in the project had a conflict of interest. The son of U.S. Congresswoman Kay Granger was first put in charge of overseeing it. Hill also said he would ask about district employees being related to one another if re-elected.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Lane tried to get that voting block to explain how exactly they’d live up to their campaign promises of transparency. He said he thought the district already did a good job, but it could improve. For example, the press shouldn’t have to submit a Texas Public Information Act request for information that’s readily available and not privileged, he said.
“The word ‘transparency’ is being used all the time, and I’m not sure what it means,” Lane said.
Hill suggested the district work to become one of the governmental entities recognized by the Texas Comptroller’s Office as being transparent. According to the Comptroller’s website, the district would do this by going beyond what is required of the Texas Public Information Act. Instead of just providing financial documents, the district would have to provide thorough summaries, downloadable data, visualizations and other relevant information.
“I get that it’s a nebulous word that people have trouble defining,” Hill said.
“That certification that he’s describing from the Comptroller’s Office could be one of the tools we use,” King said.
The board is scheduled to meet next July 20.