A photo of the of the Tarrant Regional Water District. (Courtesy photo | TRWD)

The Tarrant Regional Water District will pay its former general manager $161,647.20 not to sue the agency he led for almost four decades. He also will receive almost $100,000 tied to his unused paid leave and retirement benefits.

The agreement was signed by both the water district board and Jim Oliver on Sept. 30 and became public Friday. 

It also states the district will pay Oliver an additional $95,674.28 on Oct. 15. That amount is tied to his 580.99 hours of unused paid leave, as well as his 401k contribution payout.

This comes in exchange for Oliver releasing the water district of all current and future claims and promising to cooperate with it should he be needed as a witness in future, unrelated litigation involving the district.

Oliver threatened to sue the water district after the board revoked former board president Jack Stevens’s direction to staff to deposit extra paid leave time into Oliver’s employee account. According to the settlement, it was “2,080 additional hours of unearned and unaccrued paid leave time.”

Jim Oliver, former Tarrant Regional Water District general manager

Timeline

Feb. 11

Jim Oliver sends an email to the board announcing he will step down as general manager on June 1 or upon appointment of a new general manager. Oliver proposes the water district employ him as a senior advisor until June 2022.

March 8

Then board president Jack Stevens directs water district staff to give Oliver more paid leave than he had earned.

May 1

Voters re-elect Leah King and James Hill to new terms on the five-member board. Voters also elect Mary Kelleher. She replaces Stevens.

May 18

Kelleher is sworn in, and the board unanimously votes to hire Dan Buhman as general manager.

June 15

Board learns of Stevens’ action.

June 29

Board revokes Stevens’ action.

June 30

Oliver retires.

July 1

Buhman becomes general manager.

July 2

Oliver’s attorney, Jason Smith, sends the water district a letter threatening to sue.

Sept. 29

Board votes 4-1 to settle with Oliver.

Oct. 8

Settlement becomes public.

Stevens did this without the rest of the board’s knowledge or approval, current board president Leah King said at the time, and this could have made Oliver eligible for more than $300,000 in extra compensation.

The 72-year-old Oliver also claimed he was discriminated against by the water district because of his age. Jason Smith, an attorney who represents Oliver, said his client did not choose to retire June 30, as the district said he did. Oliver planned to stay employed with the district in a lesser capacity until 2022 so current general manager Dan Buhman could be promoted to general manager instead of Buhman finding a job elsewhere.

“His position was, ‘OK, I’ll move out of this position if I can work another year,’ and they just hired his replacement and didn’t provide for his future with the district. And so that, to me, is an adverse employment action that would be subject to analysis under Title VII (of the U.S. Civil Rights Act) or chapter 21 of Texas labor code,” Smith said.

Oliver had not yet filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is required before an individual can file a job discrimination lawsuit against his or her employer.

Oliver would not have been able to privately sue the water district for age discrimination until the EEOC issued him a notice of right to sue. Once he received that, he would have 90 days to file suit.

The EEOC’s overall processing time for an age discrimination claim in fiscal year 2020 was 267 days.

Also that fiscal year, the EEOC determined after investigating that no age discrimination occurred in 69.8% of the age discrimination claims it investigated.

Age discrimination claims are more common than race, sex or religion discrimination claims, but not often successful when they do go to trial, said Mick McKamie, a San Antonio attorney who specializes in employment law.

“Depending on the situation, a lot of the folks who are over 45 years old, they immediately think they can make an age claim and they do so even though often the decision-makers in their case are also old enough to quality for age protection, and in order to prove an age claim, you generally have to show some other type of employees have received more favorable treatment and they are not older,” he said.

But, McKamie added, “if they do have merit though and of course I don’t know whether this one does or not, it would not be out of the ordinary for a settlement to occur before there’s a formal claim.”

Smith filed a Texas Public Information Act request on Aug. 17 for copies of all communications to and from water board member James 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.” 

The water district argued in an Aug. 24 letter to the Texas Attorney General’s Office that it should be able to withhold that information because it “relates to Mr. Oliver’s anticipated age discrimination, constitutional and TOMA (Texas Open Meetings Act) claims against TRWD.”

The district argued the litigation exception to the act was there “to prevent requesters from using the PIA as an end-run around discovery limitations.”

If there were indeed communications from board members referencing Oliver’s age, that would have bolstered Oliver’s case, McKamie said.

Tarrant Regional Water District ongoing coverage

The Fort Worth Report seeks to educate, engage and empower readers about the district’s inner workings, a flood control project, why they matter and how they can be improved.

“Absolutely. Remember the board acts as a group not just individuals; however, if you have an individual or more members who demonstrates some kind of personal dislike or discriminatory motive against age, that certainly is evidence that would support his claim,” McKamie said.

Mary Kelleher, the only board member to vote against settling with Oliver on Sept. 29, said the law firm handling the case, Thompson & Horton, has not presented her with any evidence of the age discrimination.

And Thompson & Horton wrote in a letter to Smith, Oliver’s attorney, on Aug. 4 there was no evidence of age discrimination.

“The Board had legitimate and important reasons for its decision to revoke Mr. Stevens’s actions: the actions were not authorized, they were contrary to the Board’s October 2020 decision, they deviated from the process for such decisions under state law and Board policy, and his actions violated the Texas Constitution,” wrote Carlos Lopez, a managing partner of Thompson & Horton.

Lopez proposed on Aug. 4 a settlement amount of $40,421.80. Subsequent letters between the parties show them negotiating the amount, and it going up.

In a statement sent Friday to the Fort Worth Report, Oliver wrote he was “proud to be part of an agency that, during my 37-year tenure as general manager, built a complex water supply system of reservoirs, pipelines and natural wetland water reclamation facilities that will extend our region’s water supply beyond 2060.”

“TRWD also maintains one of the highest rated and safest floodways in the country and, during my tenure, added 60 plus miles of Trinity Trails, numerous trailheads, Eagle Mountain Park, Twin Points Park and the Marine Creek Lake trail system.

I was honored to serve with many people dedicated to making a region a better place. I wish TRWD well and I’m rooting for the agency’s continued success in meeting the vital needs of the communities it serves.” 

This story was updated Friday afternoon to clarify information from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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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