Overview:

A survey concluded that 40 family relationships exist between 22 TRWD employees.

The results of a survey conducted by the Tarrant Regional Water District found 40 familial relationships between water district employees. 

After drawing public criticism for nepotism in the organization, the Tarrant Regional Water District agreed, during a Jan. 18 board meeting, to conduct a survey to identify family connections within the water district and to approve a new nepotism policy.   

If you go: 

The Board of Directors will hold their next meeting at 9:00 a.m March 22, TRWD Board Room

800 East Northside Drive, Fort Worth, Texas 76102

“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 January meeting.

The survey revealed no direct supervisory connections between relatives but did identify 40  family relationships among the 333 people employed by the water district. 

A family relationship, as defined by the Tarrant Regional Water District board, includes an employee’s spouse, domestic partner, parent, sibling, child, cousin, aunt, uncle, in-law, grandparent, grandchild, significant other, and the same relations above which derive from foster, step, or adopted relationships.

The relationships identified in the survey are not necessarily evidence of nepotism, Thomas Graca, University of Texas at Arlington clinical professor of management, said. Generally, nepotism is favoritism, he explained. In the case of a public organization like the water district, nepotism can be defined by a subordinate working under their family members – regardless of proven favoritism. 

“This relatively high number of family members working in the same organization is somewhere between curious and suspicious,” Graca said.

Of those 40 relationships, the survey found that no employees directly report to a member of their family. The Report has previously identified that Shanna Cate Granger, who recently left her role as a placemaking manager, directly reported to her husband, JD Granger, until 2020.

Tarrant Regional Water District

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Three identified relationships are between employees with an indirect supervisory role. Indirect supervision may mean that while an employee wouldn’t be directly accountable to their family member, an employee is still considered a subordinate of their relative. 

The water district declined to make any employee available for an interview. 

The district is going beyond what state law requires to manage personal relationships at the water district, Cabrera said in a statement. The new policy, approved by the board in January, will ensure employees will not directly report to their relatives or be involved in the hiring or advancement of a family member, she wrote. 

The board-approved nepotism policy hasn’t been implemented, Chad Lorance, spokesman for the Water District said in a statement. “We will soon have administrative policies in place to enforce our policy,”  Cabrera said in a statement.

Nearly half of the relationships, 18, are between employees who report to the same chief officer, the survey found. Of the remaining relationships, 14 are between employees who may interact in the course of their job and five are between employees who likely have little to no interaction 

Nepotism implies favoritism in the hiring process, Graca said. When favoritism seeps into an organization, it is always problematic, he said, because it means other employees can’t ensure the most qualified applicant filled the position.

“That means the organization might not be performing at the level that it could be performing,” Graca said. 

The water district has been accused of nepotism in the past. The most public example is the hiring of JD Granger, Congresswoman Kay Granger’s son, to be the executive director of the Central City Flood/Panther Island Project. Previously reported concerns of nepotism at the Water District in September identified at least three employees of the Water District connected to high-level fellow employees, former board members, or contractors with the Water District. 

Former Water District General Manager Jim Oliver’s girlfriend, Valerie Jay, was hired by the water district a year after Oliver changed Granger’s role within the Panther Island to quell accusations of rampant nepotism.  

Observers also have questioned the relationship between water district employees and their contracted vendors. The engineering firm Freese & Nichols has received over $12 million from the district since 2018. Previous reporting confirmed at least seven employees, one of whom is now retired, have spouses or relatives who work for Freese & Nichols. 

When an organization posts a request for proposals from firms for a possible contract, they would disclose any family relationships that exist between the organization and outside firm, Graca said. 

“Because everyone knows that these relationships exist, executives in the organization can take steps to kind of manage that conflict of interest and make sure that no bias or prejudice is coming into the contractor selection process because of it,” Graca said. 

Disclosure statements available on the water district’s website address relationships between employees of the water district and employees of contracted firms. Those disclosures did not always address the full scope of possible conflict of interests, reporting found

Cabrera will address these concerns at a March 22 meeting of the Tarrant Regional Water District Board of Directors. Cabrera will discuss the districts’ purchasing and procurement policy, which includes discussion of the district’s contracting policies. An advance copy of the policy is not available ahead of the meeting. 

Other examples of nepotism: 

  • Matt Oliver, the nephew of the former general manager, is a communication manager Oliver was hired in 2009. David Owen, also Oliver’s nephew, is purchasing manager for an annual salary of about $112,000. He was hired in 2003.
  • Linda Christie, a governmental affairs director earning about $206,000 annually, is the ex-wife of Lee Christie. Lee Christie is a partner in the law firm Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell and Taplett. The Report previously reported that despite being considered the water district’s longtime general counsel, it does not have a written contract. 
  • Sandra Newby, chief financial officer earning about $231,000 annually, is married to former water board member Brian Newby. Brian Newby is a managing partner in the law firm Cantey Hanger, which the water district has paid $390,157.62 since 2018 for consulting, according to check registers. Lorance, the water district spokesman, said, “Cantey Hangar was on retainer to provide general legal services and government affairs services. Going forward we will only use them on an as-needed basis.” 

*Information comes from the previous reporting by the Fort Worth Report 

What they can do to improve

The survey results recommended ways to address the relationships identified. The water district will establish a new procedure to ensure employees whose family members indirectly report to them will not be involved in the hiring, advancement, compensation, and working condition decisions of their relatives. 

For the 14 relatives who may work together, the water district will ensure the relatives have separate duties and require internal supervision of a task that involves both relatives. The 18 relationships between relatives that share the same chief will be reported by human resources to the executive team. 

There will be no action taken on the five relatives who have little to no interaction with each other.  

While staff works to apply the board’s policies, the organization should be mindful of addressing conflicts of interest where family members’ interests converge, said Michael Green, director of the Texas A&M workplace law program. 

“Now that you’re being transparent about it and you have a policy in place, the only question would be, ‘What are those indirect supervision issues?’” Green said. “If there are direct supervision issues, there should be some mechanism to make sure that there’s fairness – so you can certainly do that with indirect issues, too.” 

During a Jan. 18 meeting, the water district board approved new employee practices meant to address management concerns. The policies address nepotism and consensual relationships among employees. 

The water district will need to improve its recruiting practices to effectively curb nepotism, Graca said. Nepotism isn’t always a symptom of bias in the hiring process; it can be the result of a shallow applicant pool. 

“Organizations interested in a broader applicant pool might invest in advertising their positions just beyond the organization’s job board or county job boards,” Graca said. 

Using aggressive recruitment tactics like actively identifying qualified candidates rather than relying on applicants and regularly updating job specifications can also lead to deeper, stronger applicant pools, Graca said. 

“We are committed to this effort and will continue to make managing personal relationships within Tarrant Regional Water District’s workforce a priority.” Cabrera said. 

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via TwitterAt 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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Rachel Behrndt

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org

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