In 2019, Tarrant Regional Water District General Manager Jim Oliver announced he would change the high-profile job of JD Granger.
It was an attempt to quell public criticism as Granger oversaw the Panther Island/Central City Flood Control project while his mother, Congresswoman Kay Granger, sought federal funding for it. Oliver and others said they hoped the change would improve the optics of the billion-dollar project.
But, a year later, with no fanfare, Oliver hired his girlfriend, Valerie Jay, without advertising or creating a job description for the position.
This followed a pattern of the water district hiring the family members of employees and contractors. District observers express hope that a new general manager and newly elected board members will change a decades-old culture of nepotism and cronyism there.
Officials say they are updating water district policies, but they’ve said that before.
There’s currently no policy prohibiting hiring girlfriends or boyfriends.
“Even if they have no policy, there’s still a policy against bad judgment,” said Michael Z. Green, a professor and director of the workplace law program at Texas A&M University’s School of Law in Fort Worth.
And this was bad judgment, Green said. For one, people could argue Oliver hiring Jay was using taxpayer money for his benefit rather than the taxpayers’. Second, it opens the water district up to a number of legal liabilities.
If a manager has a relationship with a subordinate without documenting that the relationship is consensual, that manager and their company could be sued for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment should the relationship go awry, Green said.
Another employee not in the relationship also could sue the water district and argue that they too were in a hostile work environment because the relationship they witnessed created the perception that if they weren’t also willing to date their boss, they could not move up in the organization.
“And then lastly, what I would say is if, even if there’s nothing negative going on in terms of that interaction, if others do know about it, it can kind of jeopardize or paralyze that person’s ability to communicate and work with people because people are somewhat hesitant that what they say, what they do, they’re not talking to their coworker, they’re also because of that relationship talking to the person who hired them,” Green said.
Adrian Shelley, executive director of the consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen Texas, said the water district board doesn’t have to update its policies before addressing bad behavior.
“For a district that has faced some of these issues in the past, that has probably run afoul of state law already, I wouldn’t say that it’s an adequate answer to an ongoing, present issue that, ‘we’re going to update our policies,’ ” he said.
How did this happen?
Before Jay was an employee, Oliver recommended the water district hire her as a contractor, water district officials said.
Starting on July 1, 2019, the water district paid Jay $3,500 per month to coordinate events with the city of Fort Worth, the nonprofit Streams & Valleys, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and bicyclists, as well as companies renting bicycles throughout the city.
Six months later, the water district extended her contract. Then, on March 1, 2020, the water district offered her a new contract with more pay and responsibilities. This contract, which was provided to the Fort Worth Report in response to a Texas Public Information Act request, was signed by Dan Buhman. Buhman succeeded Oliver as general manager July 1. That contract increased Jay’s pay to $5,000 a month.
Both these contracts netted her $68,000 from Jan. 1, 2019 to Oct. 15, 2020.
Records show Jay applied to be a water district employee on Oct. 27.
She wrote on her application that then deputy general managers Alan Thomas and Buhman referred her to the position. She indicated she would like to be part time and earn $60,000 annually. Records show Jay’s salary is $60,013.20.
The Fort Worth Report requested copies of Jay’s job description, as well as any record showing when and where Jay’s job was posted and advertised and the number of applications received. The water district said it did not have any responsive information. But the records the water district did provide show Jay was hired two days after she applied.
The records show that she was classified as an employee with temporary status with health coverage instead of an employee with temporary status without health coverage or a part-time employee. Water district spokesman Chad Lorance said classifying Jay in that way was Oliver’s decision, too.
Green, the Texas A&M law professor, said if others did want the same job as Jay, they could argue that the water district violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“A person can say they were discriminated against because having a policy of nepotism and allowing certain people to be hired who aren’t qualified for it instead of someone who might have been qualified but for their race or sex or whatever. Let’s say there was a male who wanted that position and applied for that position, but wasn’t hired. There’s potentially all kinds of legal problems. And this is what I recommend to a governmental body if they don’t have anything that prohibits that, I think they should consider that.”
Oliver and Jay married June 22, according to Tarrant County Clerk records. Oliver retired from the district June 30.
Through his attorney, Jason Smith, Oliver said it was Buhman who hired Jay. Oliver said she was initially brought in as a consultant in 2019 by Wayne Owen, the water district’s director of planning and recreation, to fill in for an employee on leave.
“I think the paperwork speaks for itself who hired Valerie,” Oliver wrote in a statement. “It is my understanding Valerie was hired to continue doing the things she did with TRWD since 2006 when she worked (as assistant director) for Streams & Valleys.”
Streams & Valleys is a nonprofit that raises money for projects to increase access to and beautify the Trinity River and its surrounding trails.
In an emailed statement, Jay told the Report, “it would be small-minded and chauvinistic to suggest I wasn’t hired based on my merit.”
When asked why she came to work for the water district rather than stay at Streams & Valleys, Jay wrote, “I correctly believed I could make a greater impact with TRWD.”
Buhman declined an interview, but wrote in a statement, “Going forward, we are taking a hard look at all of our policies, including hiring policies, to ensure all of our positions are advertised and the process meets the standards we expect them to be.”
Has this happened before?
Jay reports to JD Granger, who is still involved in the Panther Island/Central City Flood Control Project and has been a lightning rod for criticism. Other hirings and employee-contractor entanglements, many of which have been reported previously by the media, include:
- Matt Oliver, the nephew of the former general manager, is a communication manager reporting to Granger for an annual salary of about $111,000. Oliver was hired in 2009. David Owen, also Oliver’s nephew, is purchasing manager for an annual salary of about $112,000. He was hired in 2003.
- Shanna Cate is placemaking manager for an annual salary of about $113,000. In that role, Cate, who has worked for the district since 2004, reported to JD Granger, according to her 2017 job description. She and Granger married on March 1, 2019. Her November 2020 job description shows that her supervisor changed from her husband to Oliver.
- Oliver’s sister-in-law, Madeline Robson, worked for the water district from 1986 until retiring in 2015 as director of information services, and Deputy GM Alan Thomas’ son-in-law, Tim Kolar, worked for the district from 2010 to 2018. The last position he held was as a temporary service and maintenance worker, water district spokesman Lorance said.
- Linda Christie, a governmental affairs director earning about $206,000 annually, is the ex-wife of Lee Christie. Lee Christie is a partner in the law firm Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell and Taplett. The Report previously reported that despite being considered the water district’s longtime general counsel, it does not have a written contract. Check registers published on the water district’s website since that discovery indicate the water district has paid this law firm about $8.5 million since 2018.
- Sandra Newby, chief financial officer earning about $231,000 annually, is married to former water board member Brian Newby. Brian Newby is a managing partner in the law firm Cantey Hanger, which the water district has paid $390,157.62 since 2018 for consulting, according to check registers. Lorance, the water district spokesman, said, “Cantey Hangar was on retainer to provide general legal services and government affairs services. Going forward we will only use them on an as-needed basis.”
- Also, at least seven employees, one of whom is now retired, have spouses or relatives who work for Freese & Nichols, a water engineering firm the district has paid more than $12 million since 2018. Freese & Nichols designed the Panther Island bridges.
Sometimes the employees disclosed their relationship with contractors in a form on the water district’s website. Sometimes, they did not.
What do others do?
Other governmental entities have policies prohibiting nepotism and even fraternization. The water district does not.
At the city of Fort Worth, for example, “employment of relatives is permitted. However, employees may not appoint or employ immediate family members, nor use their position to influence their appointment or employment,” according to its general employee personnel rules and regulations. Employees also can’t supervise or be supervised by immediate family members.
The city’s policy continues, “Any involvement of a romantic nature between a member of management and anyone he/she supervises, either directly or indirectly, is prohibited.”
Violating these policies, including failure to disclose familial or romantic relationships, can result in termination.
The North Texas Municipal Water District prohibits family members from working in the same department or being in the same immediate chain of command, and its general manager has discretion to terminate one if their relationship with one another becomes disruptive or creates an appearance of impropriety.
“We do not require that employees disclose a romantic relationship with another employee. However, if it results in a marriage, then they would be required to disclose so that we can ensure they never work in the same chain of command,” said Kathleen Vaught, the North Texas Municipal Water District’s spokeswoman.
“We generally post all positions on our website; however, there are times we may only post the position internally if we know we have plenty of qualified applicants,” she added.
What’s the law?
Texas Government Code Chapter 573 prohibits public officials from hiring family members. Doing so would be official misconduct, which is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of between $100 to $1,000.
Both the Texas Rural Water Association and the Texas Attorney General’s Office have interpreted that prohibition as applying to a general manager of a water district.
Since Jay was Oliver’s girlfriend, not his spouse at the time of her hiring, her hiring was not illegal, but Oliver’s hiring of his nephew might be, said Shelley with Public Citizen.
The public integrity section of a local district or county attorney’s office, local law enforcement, or the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit would respond to and investigate complaints of nepotism, according to Texas Ethics Commission’ memoranda.
Because Texas generally doesn’t prioritize enforcing its ethics laws, Shelley suggested the water district make its policies stricter and, in the meantime, increase its fiscal transparency “to give people the tools to decide for themselves how their resources are being managed.”
“Another route would be to set up a complaint procedure so that citizens could make those initial determinations for them, and then all the board has to do is look at the individual cases. That way the board is not being asked to go through some kind of pre-approval or survey of all 300 employees, but instead pledging to respond to the legitimately filed complaints,” Shelley said.
What are they doing to fix this?
The water district already has started implementing Shelley’s first suggestion.
Last month, staff posted online four years of check registers as part of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts’ Transparency Stars Program. Board vice president James Hill suggested they do so.
Hill and board president Leah King also compose a new committee. One of that committee’s responsibilities will be to come up with the general manager’s performance review. Oliver didn’t regularly receive one.
Hill, King and board member Mary Kelleher said they did not know about Jay’s hiring. (Board members hire and fire only the general manager.) Board members Marty Leonard and Jim Lane could not be reached for comment.
The hiring policy and process should be more clear and the same for everyone, Hill said. King said Jay’s relationship with Oliver should have been disclosed and her hiring approved by the board. That’s what King and her husband did when they worked for Radio Shack.
“And then what happened was our careers were managed in a way that we were not in the same reporting line,” she said.
Kelleher said top water district management should disclose who in their family works for the district going forward.
The board members interviewed said they were frustrated that Jay’s hiring came out in the midst of their efforts to update the water district’s policies. They acknowledged the board had missed opportunities to update the policies in the past.
The most recent policy update was prompted by former board president Jack Stevens’ attempt to give Oliver and Granger more vacation time that they had earned. The men could have cashed out that vacation time in the hundreds of thousands dollars had the board not revoked Stevens’ action.
The current paid leave policy says “exceptions to this policy may be made by the general manager, deputy general manager, assistant general manager or board members at any time.”
In 2014, Kelleher said, someone made her aware that such an exception existed in the water district’s ethics policy, so she made a motion to take that line out. The motion passed unanimously, she said.
“The exception clause we were told was removed from the ethics policy, which specifically addressed nepotism and conflicts of interest. It just makes me wonder, did they ever take it out, or did they just give us lip service?” Kelleher said. “If I had known there were so many other policies that had that similar exception clause, I would have moved for all them to be removed, but I just didn’t know.”
Similarly, King said she questioned Oliver about Shana Cate’s supervisor being her husband in the year before Oliver addressed it.
When asked if she was satisfied with how Oliver addressed it or if she would have preferred Cate being reassigned to another department, King said, “What I would have preferred is that the entire policy actually be updated at that time.”
The board members interviewed did not suggest firing Jay as a possible solution.
Attorney Jason Smith said firing Jay would be considered retaliation. Oliver hired Smith to recoup the about $300,000 worth of vacation time that Stevens granted him and that the board revoked.
Oliver, 72, also is claiming age discrimination. The water district asked the Texas Attorney General’s Office on Aug. 24 if it can withhold copies of text messages between board member Hill and others in the community that Smith has requested and thinks will prove this claim.
The water district can’t choose to be transparent only when it suits its interests, Smith said. The AG has 45 days to decide, and either side could appeal the AG’s decision in district court.
Some board members are pleading for patience as they go through the process of improving the water district’s governance.
“Right now, it seems like we’re in such a mess, but the board really is committed to updating our policies so this does not happen again,” Kelleher said, adding the changes will be posted online for review before the board adopts them.
King asked the public not to judge the new general manager based on the actions of a predecessor he couldn’t overrule.
“We know there are things that happened in the past, but he’s working hard to update a number of policies to ensure better clarity and specificity on what the expectations are for all employees at TRWD,” she said.
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com 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.