The Tarrant Regional Water District’s general manager now has the power to renew some high-dollar contracts without board approval.
Following a Tuesday board vote, general manager Dan Buhman or his designee can renew governmental advocacy, public relations or insurance contracts of $75,000 or more in a fiscal year.
Under the policy, Buhman can also renew contracts that may not exceed $75,000 in a given year but will do so over the life of the contract.
“The new policy continues TRWD’s commitment to transparency,” Buhman said in a statement.
Board approval will still be required for initial contracts above $75,000, Buhman said. All financial information is available on the water district’s website so “anyone can see who TRWD is paying and how much,” he added.
Buhman will be required to notify the water district’s administration and policy committee, which consists of board president Leah King and vice president James Hill, of any relevant contract renewals.
Stephen Tatum, the water district’s general counsel, presented the policy changes to board members Tuesday. While Buhman will make board members aware of contract renewals at committee meetings, the board can decide if those renewals are to be discussed in a public forum and put up for a vote, Tatum said.
When approving initial contracts, the board will also be aware that those contracts could be eligible for renewal, Tatum said.
“The board isn’t just approving a one-year contract,” he said. “They’re approving a one-year contract with a possibility of renewals.”
The board has previously delegated its authority over certain contracts to Buhman, Tatum said. He pointed to current policies that allow Buhman or his designee to renew hardware and software agreements as well as pump station maintenance and equipment repair agreements.
Members of the Water District Accountability Project, a watchdog group pushing for more transparency at the agency, were critical of the board’s decision to delegate its authority over contract renewals – especially agreements with lobbyists – to Buhman.
Doreen Geiger, who frequently speaks at TRWD meetings, expressed concern that the policy changes would allow water district staff to hire friends and family behind closed doors.
“This is the least transparent agency, other than TAD (Tarrant Appraisal District), in the whole county,” Geiger said. “My concern is based on their past history. We know what they’ve done in the past. They just call up their buddies, they give them these gargantuan contracts, and the board usually doesn’t even know.”
Geiger’s watchdog group formed amid a scandal involving former general manager Jim Oliver, who repeatedly hired family members and later his girlfriend to work at the district, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage. An internal survey conducted last year found 40 familial relationships among the 333 people employed by the water district.
Since Oliver’s departure in 2021, which resulted in a legal settlement, the board has adopted policies to curb nepotism. Those rules prohibit relationships between employees and subordinates and forbid TRWD from hiring an employee to be a direct report to their relative.
In January, the water district also celebrated receiving five stars from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts’ Transparency Star program, which recognizes government entities for providing clear information by publicly posting financial documents, downloadable data and more. The water district is the only special purpose district in Texas, and one of 15 agencies statewide, to hold all five stars in the transparency program.
While she applauds the agency’s transparency moves, Geiger worries that little has changed behind the scenes.
She pointed to the board’s January approval of a one-year, $120,000 state legislature advocacy contract with Mindy Ellmer, a lobbyist and wife of state Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth. The contract is eligible for two, one-year renewals.
Ellmer did not respond to a request for comment sent through her website. In his statement, Buhman said Ellmer is the most qualified person to advocate for the water district’s interests on the state level.
The changes to the water district board’s governance policies have shifted since Tatum first introduced them in January. In the first draft, Buhman would have had the authority to approve – not just renew – contracts over $75,000 without consulting the board. The policy was adjusted following internal feedback, Tatum said.
Board member Charles “CB” Team said the board has a responsibility to pay close attention to the terms of new, long-term contracts.
“I think this is going to be a time-saver for the board,” Team said. “It also puts a lot of responsibility on us to pay attention to the initiation of new contracts and not to … have a blank check for these future renewals.”
Board policies are fluid and can be updated in the future to ensure that the water district is abiding by the board’s expectations as well as all applicable law, King said.
During the Tuesday meeting, board members also approved a procedure for filling a vacancy on the board if someone dies or otherwise leaves their seat before their term expires.
The issue arose after longtime board member Jim Lane died in November. Team was appointed to serve the remainder of Lane’s term and is on the May ballot.
The new policy leaves the door open for the board to appoint a new member through any process the board “determines to be fair, appropriate and in the best interests of the public.”
Board members must appoint someone by majority vote within 60 days of the vacancy, in accordance with state law.
In other water district news
- Board members adopted a new strategic plan for the water district, which outlines the agency’s goals for water supply and Panther Island, the flood control and urban redevelopment project. One of their priorities will be selecting a real estate consulting team to assist in selling the water district’s land on Panther Island after the project is completed. The water district will also design a public feedback strategy that identifies opportunities to improve service to the community and “prove that the community’s trust in TRWD is warranted.”
- At the recommendation of Buhman, board members approved a new one-year contract for consultant Mark Mazzanti. The 35-year veteran of the Army Corps of Engineers was hired in late 2019 as the new coordinator for Panther Island. Mazzanti originally made $25,000 per month to shepherd the project, but that amount decreased to $7,500 per month in 2022. Now, Mazzanti will make $5,000 a month.
- Water supply across the agency’s reservoirs is back up to 91% full, according to Rachel Ickert, chief water resources officer. That’s a far cry from last fall. Ickert originally expected the water district to enter Stage 1 of its drought contingency plan in December. Consistent rainfall has kept the region out of drought since then.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.