Last September, Shanna Cate Granger was the lead organizer of the Tarrant Regional Water District’s Oktoberfest event in her role as the agency’s placemaking manager and event director.
Now, seven months after departing the water district, Granger is suing her former employer for rescinding a permit to host her own Oktoberfest celebration at Panther Island Pavilion, originally set for Sept. 21-24. She seeks up to $1 million in damages, pointing to contracts with a German beer distributor, band and numerous other vendors that will be lost as a result of the district’s decision.
Granger, who officially exited her job in November, previously oversaw the program allowing third parties to rent the pavilion for outside events.
“As far as we know, in the history of this facility being rented, there’s never been a permit terminated,” Greg Jackson, attorney for Granger, told the Fort Worth Report. “This is the first one.”
The lawsuit, filed June 13 in Tarrant County district court, accuses the water district and three elected board members of unlawfully terminating the permit three months after giving Granger and her new company, Prost Production, permission to hold an Oktoberfest event at the pavilion.
Water district leaders originally supported her plans to organize the three-day celebration, but changed their tune in May over concerns that Granger’s event would “appear too much like” the Oktoberfest event held by the water district in 2021, according to the lawsuit.
“There was really nothing distinctive about the Fort Worth Oktoberfest,” Jackson said. “There are thousands of Oktoberfests held around the world every year … At this point it is kind of like having a Christmas party. You can’t really expect people to host a Christmas party without having a Santa Claus and a Christmas tree.”
On Friday, Dan Buhman, the water district’s general manager, said he could not comment on the specifics of pending litigation. However, he said a legal review conducted by water district general counsel Stephen Tatum found that the water district could not legally give permission to a private entity to run the Oktoberfest event, including Granger’s company, without undergoing a stringent review process.
Under Section 52 of the Texas Constitution, government agencies are banned from granting public funds or a “thing of value” to a corporation or individual unless the funds are being spent on a “public purpose.”
“Our legal review made it clear that the Texas Constitution prohibits public entities from transferring profit-making events like this to another entity without meeting several constitutional tests,” Buhman said. “So in the end, the law prohibits us from giving this profit-making event to another entity. Once we realized that, we took immediate action, so we began the process of canceling the permit.”
Granger is married to JD Granger, the former executive director of the Panther Island Project and the son of Congresswoman Kay Granger. Shortly after leaving his job in April, JD Granger created a consulting company and signed a six-month contract with the water district to continue offering expertise on Panther Island.
“Certainly, it makes one wonder if they’re all connected,” Jackson said. “So you know, his departure from the water district, her departure from the same entity. There have been numerous other people who left, and it really does kind of look suspicious, but we don’t have any hard evidence to link those things, at least as of yet.”
Buhman disputed that the conflict had anything to do with a particular individual or entity.
Key dates for Granger’s lawsuit
- June 13: Granger files a lawsuit seeking to stop the water district from terminating her permit.
- June 14: Granger’s request for a temporary restraining order is denied in court.
- June 16: Granger’s permit is officially terminated by the water district.
- June 21: Water district board members will meet, at 9 a.m., for the first time since lawsuit was filed.
- July 12: A hearing on Granger’s temporary injunction is scheduled.
“It’s about adhering to the process required by the law,” Buhman said. “We are doing what the law and public requires of us by keeping the focus on our mission. That’s what this is about.”
In addition to breach of contract, Granger’s lawsuit accuses the water district of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by allowing board members to consult with each other outside of a public meeting. Board president Leah King, alongside board members James Hill and Mary Kelleher, are listed as defendants. When reached by the Report, Kelleher said board members were advised not to comment on pending litigation.
Buhman said the decision to rescind the permit was his, not the board’s. Applications to use Panther Island Pavilion are not board-level decisions and are typically handled by water district staff, he said. The permit did not come up for board action, but board members are aware of Buhman’s actions on the issue.
“As a general manager, my job was to be transparent with my board about what I’m doing, generally,” he said. “So I make sure that the board is aware of my actions. But that’s very different from the board taking action on things.”
Granger and Jackson initially sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the water district from rescinding her permit. A judge denied the request Tuesday.
The permit was officially terminated on June 16. Granger plans to re-apply for a permit in time for the board’s Tuesday meeting in hopes of forcing a public consideration of it, Jackson said.
If Granger doesn’t win her reapplication bid, the legal case against the water district will continue July 12, when her legal team is scheduled to argue for a temporary injunction.
“It’s my hope that the request is reconsidered (on Tuesday) and hopefully is granted and if so this will all kind of be a non-issue,” Jackson said. “We don’t really expect that to happen.”
Following months of planning, district changed course on event
In the lawsuit, Granger claims that the water district no longer wanted to produce its own Oktoberfest event. Buhman confirmed that under his leadership, which began last summer, the water district has decided to focus more on recreational activities that relate to the agency’s other core missions: water supply and flood control.
While the water district continues to support litter pickup events and an annual July 4 fireworks show with nonprofit Streams and Valleys, Buhman’s team decided not to produce Oktoberfest again in the future, he said.
The 2021 festival was the first and only time the water district organized the event, according to the lawsuit. From 2014 to 2019, Granger organized Oktoberfest celebrations as an employee of the Trinity River Vision Authority, which restructured in 2019 and no longer had a separate budget from the water district, per the lawsuit.
“Our hope was that this event would continue for the community, but not be produced by the water district,” Buhman said. “And we determined that it would be like any other permit we issued for use of our facilities.”
After meeting with Buhman in January and February about potential sponsorship opportunities, Granger was given the go-ahead to rent “The Shack,” an event venue at Panther Island Pavilion, on March 9, according to the lawsuit. During those meetings, Buhman said Granger could use the same website URL, logos and branding as the water district used in 2021, Granger claims.
By mid-May, the dynamic between Granger and the water district had shifted. In the lawsuit, Granger recounts a conversation with Buhman on May 10 during which Buhman said the water district was considering rescinding the permit because of concerns over Granger using the water district’s branding.
“To alleviate TRWD’s concerns, Granger changed the name of the event and at her sole and additional expense hired a firm to create new event branding, including a different logo, color scheme and other graphics for a complete change in the look and feel of the promotional Materials,” the lawsuit reads. “Additionally, she incurred expenses building a completely new website and purchasing a new website URL.”
Future of Oktoberfest 2022 uncertain after Granger rejects offer
On May 24, Andy Taft, the president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., told Granger he was asked by the water district to come up with a creative solution to the Oktoberfest problem. He made her an offer, according to the suit.
The water district would rescind the permit given to Granger and Prost Production and issue a separate Oktoberfest event permit to Downtown Fort Worth Inc. Granger would then be hired by the nonprofit organization to execute all event production as a contractor. Taft did not respond to an interview request.
Buhman declined to discuss Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s involvement, but said the water district explored potential solutions.
“We had conversations with partners that could produce TRWD’s Oktoberfest without the legal concerns we have with this,” Buhman said.
Granger rejected the proposal on June 1, offering instead to make Downtown Fort Worth Inc. a presenting sponsor of Oktoberfest. Tatum, the water district’s general counsel, responded stating that the “ultimate decisions that relate to rescinding the permit rest with the TRWD Board,” and that he was recommending the termination of the permit, according to the lawsuit.
“TRWD now claims, after the permit was issued and approved by its general counsel, that the ‘look and feel’ of its one-time Oktoberfest is a public ‘thing of value’ that cannot be given to Granger and Prost,” the lawsuit reads.
Buhman said the permit issue was solely based on Tatum’s legal review, which found that transferring the production of the Oktoberfest event to a nonprofit entity did not pose the same concerns as a private company potentially benefiting from a public gift from the water district.
Now, the original URL for Fort Worth’s Oktoberfest celebration redirects to Panther Island Pavilion’s website. A separate link on Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s website is active with a 2022 copyright claim, and another website offering options for a Fort Worth “Run Und Ride” remains online.
With the legal conflict set to last into the summer, the future of Fort Worth’s Oktoberfest celebration hangs in the balance. Buhman said he couldn’t speculate on how long court proceedings would last, or how much the water district would spend on legal fees. The agency has already retained outside counsel in Dallas attorney Joel E. Geary, according to court filings.
“I still think it’s a great event for the community,” Buhman said. “I still hope that it’s something that can be put on, in some way, for the community.”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter.
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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