During its first board meeting of 2022, the Tarrant Regional Water District approved new policies for employees that aim to curb nepotism and favoritism among staff. 

Board members also met privately to discuss their looming legal challenge – and a potential resolution – to Fort Worth’s proposed sewage treatment plant. 

New rules for water district staff

  • Prohibit relationships between employees and subordinates. 
  • Require employees to report any relationship and may result in the employee or subordinate moving to a different department.
  • Address nepotism among staff by forbidding employees to be involved in the hiring, advancement or compensation of a relative. 
  • Prohibit water district from hiring an employee to be a direct report to their relative. 

The new rules were discussed by the board in December, after the board already agreed on similar rules for themselves and the general manager. 

These rules will go into effect Feb. 1. Now that the policies have been approved by the board, the water district will send out a survey to staff, asking them to self-report any romantic or familial relationships.

“By February we will be able to tell you if we have any conflict. We don’t believe that we will,” Lisa Cabrera, Chief Human Resources Officer, said at the meeting. 

Water district employees questioned how a relationship would be defined and how the district can ensure relationships get reported to the human resources department. Frequent board observer and retired attorney Jackee Cox raised similar concerns with the process for reporting favoritism.

“It seems like they’re passing off the responsibility of oversight to the staff,” Cox said after the meeting.

Cabrera said those questions would be answered in the procedures General Manager Dan Buhman or a designee is tasked to create now that the policy has been approved by the board. The policy laid out minimum requirements for the standards of conduct required of employees.

Board member challenges city’s sewage treatment plant

Water district officials are also facing scrutiny over their opposition to Fort Worth’s proposed wastewater treatment plant on Mary’s Creek, which the city says is necessary to meet the demands of booming development in west Fort Worth. 

Last November, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality granted a contested case hearing to Martha Leonard, a water district board member first elected in 2006 who owns property adjacent to the sewage plant’s proposed location. Contested case hearings are similar to civil trials in state district court and can take months if not more than a year to resolve. 

The water district itself applied for a hearing challenging Fort Worth’s permit request to build the new facility, citing concerns that, under certain conditions, the treated wastewater could cause blue-green algae blooms harming the quality of the Trinity River. But Texas commissioners said they weren’t sure if the district qualified as an “affected person.”

Commissioners Jon Niermann and Bobby Janecka referred that decision to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, which is scheduled to hold a preliminary hearing about the challenges to Fort Worth’s plant at 10 a.m. Feb. 28 via Zoom. 

During public comment, Cox criticized the water district for not being more transparent about its reasons for opposing the treatment facility, connecting the district’s challenge to Leonard’s property ownership. She called for Leonard’s resignation because of her “conflict of interest.” 

“If you have a good reason as a board to fight the city of Fort Worth over whether it gets a wastewater treatment plant, you need to tell us,” Cox said. 

Leonard declined to comment on the matter Tuesday, but wrote in a November statement that her property is within one mile of where Fort Worth officials want to discharge up to 15 million gallons of treated sewage per day. She is concerned that the discharge would impact the water quality of the creek. 

“In addition, there are two low water dams on the creek within my property that can be affected from the discharge, especially if there is ever an upset within the plant,” Leonard wrote in an email. “Any sludge releases will accumulate in these ponds. I also have a family that lives on the property. Their use of the creek would be impacted if the water quality or the ponds are impacted.”

Tarrant Regional Water District board member Marty Leonard listens during an October meeting. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Chris Harder, Fort Worth’s water director, has previously defended the city’s plans, stating that the water leaving the plant “will be at the highest quality that we can actually treat from a technical standpoint.” 

Leonard said she has recused herself from executive sessions where the water district’s attorney provides updates on Mary’s Creek to board members. 

Chad Lorance, the water district’s spokesman, said in November that Leonard is “well within her rights as a private citizen and potentially affected land owner” to request a hearing. On Tuesday, he confirmed that Leonard is not using the district’s legal resources for her case against the Mary’s Creek plant.  

Will Fort Worth, water district resolve dispute before February hearing?  

The board met with the district’s general counsel Tuesday in a closed meeting to discuss pending litigation related to the Mary’s Creek plant. 

Fort Worth water department staff and water district employees met last fall in an effort to resolve concerns about the sewage plant prior to the preliminary hearing, according to a Nov. 16 report to Fort Worth City Council filed by City Manager David Cooke. 

As a result of those meetings, the two parties developed a term sheet that would require Fort Worth to design, construct and operate a pump station, pipeline and tank to pump treated wastewater effluent from Mary’s Creek to the water district’s existing pipelines, according to the report. This would be a shift from the city’s original plans to discharge all of its wastewater into Mary’s Creek, which flows into the Clear Fork of the Trinity. 

To complete its end of the bargain, Fort Worth would need to apply for another permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to send its reused water to the water district. The water district, in turn, would apply for a permit to take the treated wastewater and discharge it into Eagle Mountain Lake. 

All infrastructure costs necessary to obtain the Eagle Mountain Lake permit would be covered by the water district, according to Cooke’s report. This agreement would last for at least 20 years if a final version is approved by the water district’s board. 

“Further refinement of this scenario is still a work in progress, and it is anticipated that discussions between the TRWD and Fort Worth will continue, with (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) potentially playing a role through their Alternate Dispute Resolution Program,” Cooke wrote in November.

If Fort Worth officials and water district staff are able to resolve their differences, the city would still need to resolve Leonard’s challenge before the water department could move forward with design and construction of the Mary’s Creek plant. 

The board is scheduled to meet Feb. 2 for a training on open meeting procedures and will meet again for a full session Feb. 15. 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@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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Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org. Her coverage is made possible by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman...

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report in collaboration with KERA. She is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri where she majored in Journalism and Political...

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