With retirement imminent, Water District General Manager Jim Oliver strongly aired his grievances to board members about the perception of the Panther Island/Central City Flood Control project.
Emails obtained by Fort Worth Report through a Texas Public Information Act request show Oliver defending the head of the project, JD Granger.
Oliver’s email came after Granger had made a Facebook post that the new board president, Leah King, told the Report on Tuesday was “in poor taste.”
The post, accompanied by a picture of Granger with two others on the White Settlement bridge, read in part, “This bridge opening is just another expected milestone towards the completion of a project that makes the old guard in Fort Worth uncomfortable. … And at the finish line everyone will think it was easy and take all the credit.”
“Before you condemn JD for speaking his mind, let’s review some facts that influence his outlook,” Oliver wrote in a May 25 email to King; board members Marty Leonard, Jim Lane and James Hill; then-deputy GM Dan Buhman, and attorney Lee Christie.
“When the project was conceived, despite dozens of community meetings and a citizens steering committee, the project was dubbed ‘fantasy island’ by many so-called community leaders. (I could name names.) Some years later, the local part of the project steamed along on time and under budget, yet Mayor (Betsy) Price publicly called for an audit (which implies suspected financial and management improprieties). She personally called (former water board president) Jack (Stevens) and told him that JD and I should be fired. As a result, her negative comments…were used as justification by the OMB (Office of Budget and Management) to kill USACE (Army Corps of Engineers) recommended funding for the project for the next few years,” Oliver wrote.
He wrote that Price’s “outburst” ultimately resulted in the transferring of the marketing of Panther Island for development from the water district to the city.
“I have yet to find anything the city has done in this area,” Oliver wrote.
“Next, the mayor went to D.C., supposedly to meet with White House officials, came back, called the press and proclaimed that she had secured $250 million for the project. To date, the money has never materialized. Yet no one, not community leaders or the press, have ever asked her what happened. However, they continually blame JD and TRWD for the last few years of funding failure.”
Price and Granger could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.
Oliver wrote that the board should be “outraged” at the double standard the water district is held to, including accusations of nepotism and a lack of transparency there.
“The city and county are full of relatives,” he wrote. “Try making an open record request with the city and see how often the 10-day open record response requirement is violated.”
Oliver concluded the email by saying he’d talk with Granger about the post but chalked it up to him “pushing the envelope” because “that’s what creative and driven people often do.”
In follow-up emails also obtained by the Report, King and Hill responded that Oliver’s email was inappropriate. Hill wrote that Oliver’s email contained inaccuracies.
Oliver’s May 25 email followed another contentious email exchange earlier in the month. During that earlier exchange, Hill asked Lee Christie, one of the attorneys with the district’s longtime general counsel, to add to the May 11 meeting agenda the swearing in of Mary Kelleher, who voters chose to replace Stevens on the board during a May 1 election. Kelleher was ultimately not sworn in until May 18, leading some members of the public to be concerned she would be left out of the hiring of Oliver’s replacement.
“We have consistently canvassed AND sworn in new officers on the 10th day every election cycle since Jack was first elected in 2004 save and except the one year where there was an official recount of the Election of 2013,” Hill wrote.
Hill copied King on the email because two board members need to be in agreement to add an item to the agenda.
However, Oliver responded that Hill’s request was out of line.
“You, as a single board member, have no authority to ‘direct’ the general counsel or any staff member to do anything,” Oliver wrote May 5. “In your coming term, I hope you will pay closer attention to the district’s important business and less to playing politics. You will become a much better board member.”
By this time, Stevens had already directed staff to deposit extra paid vacation into Oliver’s and Granger’s employee accounts. Stevens did this without the rest of the board’s knowledge. It could have made Oliver eligible for $300,000 in extra compensation and Granger eligible for $60,000 in extra compensation had the board not revoked Stevens’ action.
In an interview with the Report on Tuesday, King said, “I find a tremendous amount of irony in that on the one hand, Mr. Oliver is saying that Mr. Hill or that no one board member can direct staff or the general counsel, and I would tend to agree … as a board, our only employee is the general manager and as such our work is with and through the general manager, which is why I don’t agree that Mr. Stevens had any authority to direct the head of human resources to make any special arrangements or deals for any particular staff member.”
Oliver has hired attorney Jason Smith to help him get that payment back.
“That’s comparing apples to oranges,” Smith said in an interview Tuesday with the Report. “The policy expressly states that board members may issue paid leave. That may be a good policy or a bad policy, but the board is charged with making policy and changing policy when they don’t think it’s appropriate, and they haven’t changed the policy.”
King said “the temperature has gone down significantly” since Dan Buhman has taken over as GM.
“That doesn’t mean that we are always in full agreement, and that likely is not going to happen as we need a good debate, but there’s a way to do that that’s constructive, respectful and keeping our charge of who we serve in mind and keeping the personalities and nitpicking out of it,” she said.
“I’m pleased with what Dan is doing, and I’m pleased with our steps toward transparency and accountability,” he said.
King and Hill said in the coming weeks that they would be reviewing and making changes to water district policies.
One of those changes might include restricting water district staff from making contributions to the political campaign of board members. Campaign finance reports show JD Granger and his mother, U.S. Congresswoman Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, donated $30,000 to Jeremy Raines, who ran for the water board and lost. The congresswoman and her campaign also donated $25,000 to Stevens. Water district staff are not prohibited from donating to water board member campaigns.
“But I think that would be best,” King said, “and board members should put that policy in place.”
The next board meeting is 9 a.m. July 29.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Wednesday, July 21 to more precisely describe how Jack Stevens’ actions could have benefited Jim Oliver and JD Granger.