Water board president Leah King asked staff on Wednesday to provide the total amount budgeted for legal fees next year.

This comes after she and others learned the Tarrant Regional Water District cut checks totaling $1.8 million to a single law firm in the past year. And that law firm, Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell, Kelly and Taplett, did not have a contract with the district.

The way the proposed fiscal year 2022 budget is currently structured, legal fees are listed in two places as totaling about $1.4 million, but Finance Director Sandy Newby said legal fees may be more and included in other items in the budget.

General Manager Dan Buhman said evaluating how much the water district spends on legal fees is part of an overall effort to review the district’s policies, starting with the board governance policy. He said it’s currently unclear who is responsible for hiring legal counsel and who the water district’s lawyers report to.

“Certainly, I want to keep legal costs as low and effective as possible,” Buhman said in an interview with the Fort Worth Report after the meeting.

The idea to provide a total amount budgeted for legal fees came up after board member Mary Kelleher interrupted Newby when she was on page 24 of the 72-page budget. Page 24 shows how much the district expects to spend on professional services from its revenue fund. The water district has at least three funds: the revenue fund, which goes to water projects; the general fund, which goes to flood protection projects; and the contingency/special projects fund, which is self explanatory. The budgeted legal fees on page 24 were listed as $634,200. 

“What was reported in the news about our legal fees does it match up?” Kelleher asked.

King then suggested providing a total amount budgeted for legal fees.

“I made several suggestions to staff on items that they could do within the draft that they shared with us today to make it easier for the general public to identify not just one portion of expenses, but everything consolidated, so essentially a roll-up budget, so you don’t have to click around so much. Right now, an individual would have to go to each of the funds, the revenue fund, the general fund or the special projects fund, to determine how much is spent on each line item and add it all together,” King said in an interview with the Report after the meeting.

Kelleher said in a separate interview with the Report after the meeting that she thought that was a good step toward transparency.

“This is so different than it was the first time I was on the board,” said Kelleher, who served from 2013 to 2017 before she was elected again May 1. “This time I get the sense that the board is truly motivated to make some very positive changes, and I’m very excited about that.”

The 2022 budget presented to the board Wednesday must be adopted before the start of the district’s fiscal year on Oct. 1. 

The water district sells untreated water to cities such as Fort Worth, Arlington and Mansfield. In 2021, it charged $1.25448 per 1,000 gallons of water. In 2022, it is proposing charging $1.25503 per 1,000 gallons of water. 

The district also taxes some along the Trinity River for flood protection. That tax, which is $0.0278 per $100 valuation, is expected to stay the same, Newby said.

King said she’s open to Buhman’s suggestions, whether that be for the district to continue to work with outside attorneys or have one on staff, “but also I fully expect the board will have a full vigorous discussion about it.” 

The board will meet again at 9 a.m. Thursday.

During that meeting, the board expected to go into a closed session to discuss the recent retirement of Jim Oliver as general manager. On June 29, the board revoked former board president Jack Stevens’ unilateral direction to staff to pay Oliver more than $300,000 extra. Oliver hired attorney Jason Smith, who wrote a letter to the district that the Texas Constitution prohibits the revocation of a public employee’s benefits such as this.

During his interview with the Report on Wednesday, Buhman said he learned about the payment the same time the board did. 

“I had heard people talk about that possibility in my previous role (as deputy general manager), but I did not know the details. I did not understand the whole situation. I just heard things sort of through the grapevine, and so yeah, I found out basically what was going on when the board found out,” he said.

Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at jessica.priest@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jessica Priest

Jessica Priest is Fort Worth Report's government and accountability reporter. She was previously on USA TODAY's regional investigative team. After Jessica reported that a Midland County prosecutor worked...

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