Members of the Tarrant Regional Water District board held back tears during a Dec. 13 tribute to Jim Lane, a Fort Worth attorney who served on the board for 16 years before his death in late November.
His widow, Janet Lane, accepted a copy of a resolution honoring her late husband from water district general manager Dan Buhman.
“He took so much pride in everything that this entity is about: the water, the Panther Island. He could not wait to see it come to fruition,” Janet Lane told board members. “I hope that whoever fills those boots up there does a good job.”
More than an hour later, the board approved a process to choose Lane’s replacement, at least until his seat is up for election in May. Candidates who ran unsuccessfully for a board seat in the 2021 election will be first in line for an appointment to Lane’s seat.
That list includes four candidates who finished behind current board members Leah King, James Hill and Mary Kelleher last year. Among them are commercial real estate broker Charles “CB” Team; business consultant Glenda Murray Thompson; industrial supply company owner Jeremy Raines; and former board president Jack Stevens.
Based on board approval and the candidate’s willingness to serve, the board will exhaust that list before moving on to alternatives, Hill said.
“I think this is the most transparent rather than us going out into the community and arbitrarily picking someone or picking someone based on a recommendation,” Hill said. “We’re going through a process of people that have been vetted by the voters. The taxpayers had input.”
Texas Water Code requires the board to fill vacancies for the remainder of a term before the 60th day after the vacancy occurs. In Lane’s case, that means appointing a board member by Jan. 26.
The process for filling that vacancy is ultimately up to the discretion of board members, said Stephen Tatum, the water district’s general counsel.
At Hill’s request, water district staff will come up with options for a policy to determine how the board will handle future vacancies during a term. That process will include a 30-day period for the public to weigh in before board members vote on the final policy, Hill said.
Members of the Water District Accountability Project, an advocacy group pushing for greater transparency from the agency, were unhappy with the decision to appoint a 2021 candidate to the board.
Several members, including former state Rep. Lon Burnam, presented a list of six potential candidates who agreed not to run for a full term in May. Their list included members of both political parties, with a late addition of Deborah Peoples, the former Tarrant County Democratic Party chair and county judge candidate.
If the appointee runs in next spring’s election, that person will have an unfair advantage as the incumbent, Burnam said. He called the board’s decision to choose from previous candidates the “same-old, same-old” way that the water district has conducted its business.
He was especially upset by the possibility that Stevens, who came in last out of seven candidates in the 2021 election, could return to office. Stevens was at the center of controversy last year after allegedly directing water district staff to deposit extra paid time off to outgoing general manager Jim Oliver’s employee account. Other board members ultimately rescinded the decision, resulting in a lawsuit threat and $257,000 settlement with Oliver.
“It is clearly manipulation to be able to appoint whoever they want to appoint and to give that person an advantage in the election,” Burnam said. “You’ve got people that have run and have been rejected by the public. They’ve been rejected and now they’re going to put them at the top of the list. That’s just wrong.”
Team, who took fourth place behind Kelleher in the 2021 election, attended the Dec. 13 meeting. He said he was caught a bit off guard by the board’s decision, and nobody has yet called him and asked if he’s willing to serve.
“But, by being there, I’m obviously still interested in the water district and I still have a commitment to my community and a desire to serve,” Team, who also ran for a water district seat in 2019, said.
Team was already considering running next May, when Lane and Marty Leonard’s seats are up for election. Leonard has already indicated her plans to retire after 17 years on the board. Prospective candidates must file to run for the board by Feb. 17.
The incumbent advantage likely won’t be large for an appointee serving less than five months on the board, Team said.
“Everyone’s entitled to an opinion,” he said. “I thought it should go to someone who has shown interest in the district, who has attended meetings regularly, who is familiar with its policies and procedures and, even better, someone who has been voted on by the public.”
Burnam and his fellow advocates plan to be at the board’s next meeting on Jan. 17, where members are expected to confirm an appointee.
“In the end, I’m sure we’ll be actively supporting someone that they don’t select,” Burnam said.
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.
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