In her first public comments about the matter, Tarrant Regional Water District board member Marty Leonard denied that her legal challenge to a proposed Fort Worth wastewater treatment plant near her property was a conflict of interest with her position on the board.
“There is no corruption. There is no conflict of interest,” Leonard said during the board’s Feb. 15 public meeting. “I’m not putting my interest … above the interests of the community. My interest is in the best water quality for Mary’s Creek and the entire community.”
Last year, both Leonard and the water district separately requested a contested case hearing from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to protest the city of Fort Worth’s plans to construct a sewage treatment facility near Aledo. Contested case hearings are similar to civil trials in state district court and can take months, if not more than a year, to resolve.
In her appeals to the commission, Leonard said she was concerned that the treated sewage could hurt water quality and cause high concentrations of chemicals near the dams on the property.
Commissioners granted the hearing to Leonard in November, deeming her an “affected person” because she owns property within a mile of where treated wastewater would be discharged into Mary’s Creek. But the commissioners weren’t sure if the water district qualified for a hearing and referred that matter to a state court.
Then, in January, retired attorney Jackee Cox called for Leonard’s resignation from the board, connecting the district’s challenge to Leonard’s property ownership and financial investment near Mary’s Creek. Cox is involved with the Water District Accountability Project, an activist group that frequently criticizes the district for lack of transparency.
This week, Leonard said the accusations were false and she has recused herself from executive sessions discussing the water district’s challenge to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. A young family living on the property uses the creek for recreation and would be vulnerable to health issues if equipment failed and sewage was accidentally discharged into the water, Leonard added.
“I’m not resigning from the TRWD board as Ms. Cox suggested I do,” Leonard said. “I owe it to the taxpayers who elected me to complete my term.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality offered Leonard the chance to enter mediation with Fort Worth officials and potentially negotiate a solution outside of court, but Leonard said she declined. The State Office of Administrative Hearings is scheduled to host a preliminary hearing about the challenges to Fort Worth’s plant at 10 a.m. Feb. 28 via Zoom.
Rachel Ickert, the district’s chief water resources officer, told board members that city staff and water district officials are still discussing “alternatives” to discharging all treated wastewater into Mary’s Creek. Confidentiality agreements restrict her from sharing more information, she said.
In November, both parties developed a term sheet that would require Fort Worth to design, construct and operate equipment that would pump the wastewater effluent from Mary’s Creek to the water district’s existing pipelines.
If Fort Worth and the water district are able to resolve their differences, Leonard’s legal opposition would still need to be addressed before the water department could move forward with designing and building the Mary’s Creek plant, which city officials say is necessary to keep up with Fort Worth’s explosive population growth.
Consultant’s contract renewed amid questions over role
While negotiations over Mary’s Creek remain open, the board closed a matter that drew criticism from activists: approving a new contract for Mark Mazzanti, a 35-year veteran of the Army Corps of Engineers who was hired in late 2019 as the new coordinator for Panther Island, the controversial flood control and urban redevelopment project.
His hiring occurred amid scrutiny of J.D. Granger, who was then the top leader of the Trinity River Vision Authority and has since stayed on as executive director of the Central City / Panther Island Project.
Mazzanti was tasked with keeping Panther Island eligible for federal funding from the Corps of Engineers, which allocated more than $400 million to the project in January after years of delays. He was paid $25,000 per month as a consultant, totaling $300,000 annually.
The Trinity River Vision Authority hired consultant Mark Mazzanti in 2019 to help bring the controversial Central City Flood Project, better known as Panther Island, out of federal funding purgatory. Mazzanti provided inside knowledge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because he was recently employed by the agency that oversees federal infrastructure projects, including…
On Feb. 15, board members approved a one-year extension with compensation of $7,500 per month. Mazzanti’s role will focus on coordinating between the corps and other project partners, including the water district and the city of Fort Worth, as they move forward with design and construction of a 1.5-mile bypass channel, said Dan Buhman, the water district’s general manager.
“Now that we have $403 million, we still need assistance, and the reality is the coordination with the corps has just begun,” Buhman told the board. “There’s so much more work that will need to be done as the corps begins executing the project.”
While Granger and Mazzanti had similar titles during their time with the water district, they had very different roles that are necessary to Panther Island’s success, Buhman said. Mazzanti had a more narrow focus on working with corps staff and identifying risks to the project’s completion, while Granger took the lead on executing the overall strategy of the program, he added.
Lon Burnam, a former state representative and leader of the Water District Accountability Project, told board members that they should reconsider paying a “lobbyist” thousands of dollars when they have reduced budgets for issues like water conservation campaigns.
“We haven’t been able to get the answers in the past (about the contract) and, quite frankly, I don’t think any lobbyist should get paid $20,000 a month,” Burnam said.
There have been “zero” ethical or legal violations involving Mazzanti’s previous role with the Corps of Engineers or during his time with the water district, Buhman said.
“He had to be careful in his relationship and what he could say to the corps, how he worked with the corps (for a year),” Buhman said. “Those were all observed during that time. But there have been zero issues … so we’re very comfortable contracting with Mark.”
The board’s next public meeting is scheduled for March 22.
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. 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.