The Tarrant Regional Water District is considering changing policies to address decades-old concerns recently detailed in a series of Fort Worth Report stories.

A key policy, drafted by the law firm Thompson & Horton and water district staff, states that no board member may act alone.

This is notable because former board president Jack Stevens apparently interpreted the water district’s current policies as giving him the power to direct staff to give two employees’ extra paid vacation time. 

This could have resulted in retired general manager Jim Oliver receiving about $300,000 in extra compensation. The board revoked Stevens’ action this summer after he lost his re-election bid.

The proposed policies also more clearly explain how the water district obtains legal services. Basically, the general manager would be responsible for hiring the water district’s in-house legal counsel through the district’s normal employee hiring process. The board would have the option to hire its own counsel, and if an outside counsel is needed for other matters, the district would go out for a request for proposals once every three years beginning Jan. 1, 2022.

The Fort Worth Report found the water district paid the law firm Pope Hardwicke nearly $1.8 million in the past year without a written contract. Current board president Leah King also said this law firm knew of Stevens’ actions and didn’t share that with the board.

Finally, under the proposed policies, the general manager would be prohibited from hiring family members. 

Oliver repeatedly hired his family members and most recently his girlfriend to work at the district, the Fort Worth Report found.

Some members of the public don’t think the proposed policies go far enough, however.

For example, the general manager should also be prohibited from hiring anyone he is in a dating relationship with, said Doreen Geiger, a regular board meeting attendee and retired nonprofit executive.

Committees made up of two board members also should not be allowed to make decisions on behalf of the board, said Jackee Cox, another regular board meeting attendee and retired lawyer. She said this happened when a committee made up of King and board member Marty Leonard recommended only Dan Buhman be hired as general manager rather than offer two or three other top candidates as finalists.

“Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, all business of the board must first be discussed by the board as a whole after notice and deliberations have been posted at least 72 hours in advance,” Cox said. “When a subcommittee presents only one possible choice to the board … that’s not a choice.”

Thompson & Horton referred to these proposed policies as the board governance policies. They said the next step will be to write policies that generally describe what the board expects of staff and then the procedures by which staff will fulfill those expectations. They said there will be policies and procedures concerning how the district does its purchasing and retains its records, for example.

Board members didn’t adopt the policies Tuesday because they said they wanted more time to consider them.

“We need to remember we’re in a predicament with the outgoing general manager because our board policies weren’t strong enough,” board member Mary Kelleher said. “It’s too important to rush.”

The board is next expected to meet Oct. 19.

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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