Water district board that runs Panther Island can’t ignore voters’ demand for openness

Voters should be relieved, we suppose, that the Tarrant Regional Water District’s governing board has so far stopped short of fulfilling the wish of the defenestrated board president, Jack Stevens, to hire a new general manager before swearing in new board members.

But that’s about the best that can be said. The board met in a closed session to discuss personnel, led by a lame-duck president, and received information about a candidate for the job.

Texas open-government experts say that may be a violation of state law, and it may depend on the difference between an update on the process and “deliberation” on a new hire. But this board has long played fast and loose with the transparency that any government panel must embrace. Enough is enough.

A replacement for longtime leader Jim Oliver is the most important decision the board will make for years. There’s a strong sense that members may have settled on a hire without the input of its newest member, Mary Kelleher, and with Stevens on his way out.

The water district, which ensures the water supply for millions of Tarrant County-area residents, among other duties, has lost the trust of many voters and taxpayers over the Panther Island project. More and more are fed up with the billion-dollar plan to reroute the Trinity River and increasingly view it as a boondoggle.

Don’t take our word for it. Several candidates for Fort Worth offices in our recent elections told us voters were vocal about Panther Island on the campaign trail, complaining about its cost and slow progress, as well as transparency questions. They expect significant change.

Some running for the water district board acknowledged the problem in their campaigns and have pledged to improve it. Voters spoke loudly about what they wanted, re-electing two of those candidates, Leah King and James Hill, and returning Kelleher to a board seat.

Perhaps more notably, Stevens came in dead last, a remarkable rejection of an incumbent with nearly two decades of service.

That followed Stevens’ stunning comments to the Editorial Board that the current water district officials knew better than any new members might and should finish the hire, even if it meant a lame-duck or two voting on the vital decision.

Governing bodies in Texas are allowed to meet privately for narrow reasons, and they must disclose them in advance. Personnel matters, which the water district board cited, certainly qualify. But the state Supreme Court has explicitly said that such a broad statement cannot cover hiring a chief executive. In the 1986 case in question, it was a school superintendent. But the principle is the same.

Kelleher won a board seat by a comfortable margin. She deserves to be fully involved in the deliberations about general manager candidates. She, not Stevens, must be the one to vote on the new hire, but she shouldn’t be put in the position of having to do so without adequate information.

More long term, the board must resolve its squishy bylaws and procedures around installing new members. Stevens is still in place and setting the board’s agenda for meetings as a lame duck.

That’s unacceptable. Just as it is for the board to still be playing games with openness and how it conducts its business, when voters have issued a clear mandate for change.

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