Some Tarrant Regional Water District board members are questioning the use of their longtime general counsel, a Fort Worth law firm with roots tracing back to the early days of the city.
Board member Mary Kelleher asked Friday that the Tarrant Regional Water District’s general counsel, Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell, Kelly & Taplett, stop handling its public record requests.
The law firm had “become a party to a matter of controversy involving TRWD in which the public and the press have a natural curiosity,” Kelleher wrote in a letter to the board members and new general manager Dan Buhman on Friday afternoon.
“It seems inappropriate for Pope Hardwicke to continue to serve in the role of evaluating open records requests — some of which may relate to information regarding the controversy in which Pope Hardwicke is involved — and determining which requests should not immediately be honored,” she continued.
This is the latest fallout from a controversy focused on retiring general manager Jim Oliver, who held the role for 35 years before stepping down June 30. The board abruptly halted plans to publicly praise Oliver during its June 15 meeting. Instead, during its next meeting, newly elected board President Leah King said her predecessor, Jack Stevens, had improperly authorized the payment of $300,000, or about a year’s salary to Oliver, without board approval. The board then voted unanimously to rescind the payment to Oliver.
King said Friday that the board decided this week to consult with a different law firm because “the general counsel was aware of the arrangement between Stevens and Oliver and never relayed that information back to the board.”
The attorney for Oliver, Jason C.N. Smith, told the Report on Friday that the district’s longtime general counsel, a longtime Fort Worth law firm with offices at 500 W. 7th St., had told Stevens it was acceptable to unilaterally give Oliver more money.
Smith said Oliver would like to meet with the board “and try to come up with a positive solution.”
Asked if a positive solution for Oliver would be to receive the $300,000 payment after all, Smith said, “You know, I don’t want to put parameters on that at this point because I don’t want to limit our options.”
The water district’s general counsel did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
King said the full board and the public should have been part of any exception to the paid leave policy.
“My response would be this any action that’s done outside of the board’s knowledge is improper,” she said. “Our responsibility as elected officials is to follow the policies of the district, and I understand Mr. Stevens believes he followed the policy, but to me the more honorable thing would have been to bring that to the entire board and the public to participate in that process.”
The Fort Worth Report requested a copy of Pope Hardwicke’s contract with the district and was told no such contract existed. However, longtime board members Marty Leonard and Jim Lane said the firm was considered general counsel when they were first elected in 2006. Information provided by the district shows attorneys and a paralegal at the firm earned between $275 and $395 per hour in January and February.
On March 8, Stevens wrote a memo to staff, instructing them to place thousands more in paid leave into Oliver’s employee account than he had earned, essentially giving him a year’s worth of additional salary. The memo said Oliver was exempt from the district’s paid leave policy.
Two months later, Stevens made a similar exception for J.D. Granger, executive director of the Panther Island/Central City project. He issued a memo May 13 directing staff to add about 520 of paid time off beyond the maximum amount allowed under the district’s policy. For Granger, the exception amounted to about $60,000 to his annual salary of $242,000.
Stevens issued this memo after he finished last in the May 1 election, but before his replacement on the board, Kelleher, was sworn in May 18. District spokesman Chad Lorance said at the time that it had been the district’s protocol since 1978 to hold swearing-in ceremonies at its May 18 meetings, but Kelleher’s supporters thought the board was trying to exclude her from being part of the GM hiring.
Kelleher and King told the Report on Friday that no money was paid to Granger either. The board’s actions Tuesday included revoking Stevens’ policy exception for all employees, King said.
Granger’s project is the focus of a long-running controversy about conflicts of interests arising from the water district’s efforts to seek hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to change the course of the Trinity River. The agency says the project would better protect the city from flooding while also revitalizing a key area north of downtown.
The documents about Stevens’ actions emerged from a public records request the Fort Worth Report filed in June. The Report also has made a Texas Public Information Act request for copies of all compensation records for Jim Oliver since fiscal year 2020, including any correspondence or documents to or from Stevens about Oliver’s retirement.
The water district is asking the Texas Attorney General’s Office if it can withhold some of the information. It believes that information is confidential, concerns litigation or settlement negotiations or falls under attorney-client privilege or work product or deliberative process privilege, it wrote in a letter. The AG is expected to respond in 45 days.
Oliver announced his retirement earlier this year, and the board unanimously approved an $81,000 contract plus expenses with Lehman Associates to search for a new GM, the minutes from a Feb. 11 meeting show. In a May news release announcing the board had selected then-deputy general manager, Dan Buhman, for the position, Board member Leonard said Lehman Associates had looked at 100 candidates from across the country. Leonard said she and King were happy with the process.
But also among the information the water district did release to the Report on Wednesday were emails from Oliver that suggest Buhman had been Oliver’s choice from the outset. Oliver proposed he continue working for the water district as a senior adviser to Buhman.
Specifically, Oliver sent the board the email announcing his retirement at 9:26 a.m. Feb. 11. Leonard responded at 10:55 a.m., asking if Oliver would settle for working for the district for a lesser amount of time. Five minutes later, the board met and went into closed session. Fifteen minutes later, the board came out of closed session, hired Lehman Associates and adjourned.
“I was planning to announce my retirement in early 2022. However, in trying not to lose Dan and give him a shot at the general manager’s position, I thought we all agreed to move up the hire date for my replacement and allow a year transition period,” Oliver replied to Leonard at 10:06 p.m. later that same day.
When asked if he had threatened to quit the water district if he had not been promoted, Buhman told the Report in an interview Thursday that he had always hoped when he was hired by the water district nearly eight years ago that he would advance there.
“But there was certainly no guarantee of that at all,” he said.
He added, though, that, “Yeah, there were certainly other opportunities out there.”
King said she understood concerns about the search process for Buhman, but said, “I can assure everyone that this was not a sham.”
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.