Posted inLocal Government

Water district board stays silent on former employee lawsuit as activists continue push for greater transparency

The elephant in the room at the Tarrant Regional Water District’s June 21 board meeting wasn’t included in the official agenda, but that didn’t stop activists from discussing former employee Shanna Cate Granger’s lawsuit against the agency filed last week. 

Granger, who left her job in November after more than 17 years at the agency, hopes to stop the water district from rescinding a permit for her company, Prost Production, to hold an Oktoberfest celebration at Panther Island Pavilion in September. 

She was previously at the helm of the water district’s 2021 Oktoberfest and sought to take over the event this fall after learning that her previous employer was dropping the event. Granger is married to JD Granger, the former executive director of the Panther Island flood control project who left the water district in April but remains on its payroll as a consultant. 

Board members, including the three named in the lawsuit – Mary Kelleher, James Hill and board president Leah King – remained silent on the legal proceedings Tuesday. The board spent more than 90 minutes in closed session, where members consulted with legal counsel, according to the meeting agenda. 

Dan Buhman, the water district’s general manager, previously told the Report that the permit was terminated after general counsel Stephen Tatum uncovered issues with a government agency giving a private company a “thing of value,” such as the Oktoberfest branding associated with the water district’s profitable event. The permit was issued in March, and the water district officially rescinded it – with Tatum’s recommendation – on June 16. 

“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.”

Lon Burnam, a leader of the Water District Accountability Project, addresses the board during an Oct. 14, 2021 meeting. Burnam is a former state representative and environmental activist based in Fort Worth. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Lon Burnam, a former Democratic state representative leading a group of activists that is frequently critical of the water district, told board members that he agreed with Buhman’s decision to pull the permit. 

“I think your in-house attorney is absolutely right in his recommendation to you guys, but it was not handled the right way,” Burnam said. “That’s the reason you’re in a lawsuit … None of the board members were, to my knowledge and the one board member I talked to, were actually given a copy of the suit with their name as defendants. That’s a mistake.” 

Burnam pointed to a June 17 Star-Telegram opinion piece by former mayors Kenneth Barr and Mike Moncrief that praised Buhman’s efforts to increase transparency and adopt new personnel policies. 

Those included new rules to curb nepotism and the completion of a survey that identified 40 family relationships among 333 water district employees, the Fort Worth Report reported earlier this year. 

“If the past 10 months are indicative of Buhman’s leadership, it’s time this community stops focusing on the past and gives Buhman and his team our strong support,” Barr and Moncrief wrote, referring to controversies surrounding the exit of Buhman’s predecessor, Jim Oliver, last year. 

Burnam agreed that the water district was more transparent than it was a year ago, but added that staff have to be more receptive to criticism. The pace of change remains “too little, too slow,” Burnam said. 

“There has been a culture of deception at the water district for decades,” he said. “And while there has been some improvement over the last year, it’s not been nearly enough or fast enough.” 

Following a presentation on the water district’s compliance with the Texas Public Information Act, which requires the agency to promptly provide records to requestors, Kelleher reflected on her first term on the board, which lasted from 2013 to 2017. 

During that period, Kelleher said, some of her own requests for public records were rejected and she was required to review documents in the presence of a water district staff member. Kelleher returned to the board last year. 

“Under our new management, I can’t even fathom that happening again,” she said. “So, we are making progress. I know a lot of you think it’s slow-coming, but remember, it’s a government agency, and we’re doing the best we can. We are making significant changes and progress under our new management.” 

The board is next scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. July 19.

In other water district news

  • Permitting and construction are set to begin on Fort Worth’s “trash wheels,” which will remove as much as 50,000 pounds of trash sitting on the surface of the Trinity River each day. While the city is handling funding, the water district has provided feedback on design and will help Fort Worth obtain permits along the way, according to assistant environmental director Darrel Andrews. Fort Worth and the water district will split the costs of disposing the trash 50-50 once the wheels are operational, coming out to about $50,000 per year for each agency. 
  • With drought conditions hitting the western half of the country, the region’s water supply is holding steady at about 90% of capacity, according to Rachel Ickert, the district’s chief water resources officer. Water district customers broke the all-time record for total water usage in May, which Ickert attributed to the region’s booming population growth. “We’re seeing that people are using less water per person, but we’re gaining a lot of people and we expect that to continue going into the future,” Ickert said. The water district continues to explore ideas that could increase water supply, including an experimental project near Lake Worth to test if the agency could feasibly store water in underground aquifers, where it will not evaporate.

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.

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