The Tarrant Regional Water District board voted 4-1 on Wednesday to settle with its former general manager before he could sue them.

But details of the settlement with Jim Oliver won’t become public until seven days after both parties sign the document, said Carlos Lopez with the law firm Thompson & Horton.

Board president Leah King said the settlement was not related to the revelation earlier this year that her predecessor, Jack Stevens, had unilaterally directed staff to give Oliver more vacation time. The board revoked Stevens’ action before Oliver could have cashed out that time. It would have amounted to about $300,0000.

King said the settlement was instead related to an age discrimination claim Oliver made.

Board vice president James Hill said that, although he felt some angst, he thought settling was the right thing to do and that the new proposed board governance policies would “make sure these types of things don’t happen on an ongoing basis.”

Mary Kelleher, who voted against settling, said she thought her fellow board members were splitting hairs. 

“He (Jim Oliver) was trying to recoup some money because he chose to retire early so Dan (Buhman) could have the possibility of being named as the new general manager,” Kelleher said.

King described the settlement as a “victory for taxpayers, customers and stakeholders” as it avoids the time and expense of a lawsuit.

But Kelleher said: “The water district has never backed down from a lawsuit that I know of.”

Check registers on the water district website showed that, as of Wednesday, it has paid  one law firm, Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell and Taplett, about $8.85 million since 2018.

In a brief interview after the meeting with the Fort Worth Report, King said, “It’s not just about dollars and cents but the operational toll it would take on staff.”

The threatened litigation was affecting staff morale, she said.

Oliver’s attorney, Jason Smith, filed a public information request on Aug. 17 for copies of all communications to and from Hill referencing Oliver’s age, including but not limited to use of the terms “old,” “fossil,” “new blood,” “old school,” “ancient,” “senile,” “fresh face,” or “dinosaur.” 

Oliver is 72. 

A protester’s sign sits against a pole outside of the Tarrant Regional Water District office. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Smith could not be immediately reached for comment on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the number of residents outside the water district’s office in the 800 block of East Northside Drive on board meeting days continues to grow. Wednesday, they held new signs, which characterized the settlement as a “hush payment.” 

Some are part of a group called the “Water District Accountability Project” and threatened to file a temporary restraining order.

“I think they think if they pay him off we will go away, but of course we won’t because there’s way too much besides this one thing going on,” resident Joyce Baker said.

The board is next scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. 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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