Tarrant water district hires expert to address open government, ethics

By Gordon Dickson
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Originally published Nov. 19, 2013

A former Texas Ethics Commission chairman has been hired to help the Tarrant Regional Water District resolve some of its problems with open-government issues.

Ross Fischer, an Austin lawyer, will help the agency, which provides long-term water resources for North Texas, deal with an increasing number of open-records requests, as well as other matters related to ethics, water district general manager Jim Oliver said.

“We feel it’s time to bring in an expert in open government who can guide us with these open-records requests,” Oliver told water district board members during a regular meeting Tuesday.

In previous years, Oliver said, the agency averaged 45 Freedom of Information Act requests. This year, there have been about 125 “very extensive and complicated requests” that are costing the staff about $223,000 in research and duplication time.

Fischer did not return a call from the Star-Telegram to his Austin office seeking comment.

He served on the ethics commission, which regulates lobbyists and political campaigns, from 2005 to 2010. He has also worked for an extensive list of Texas public agencies on matters of openness and public integrity, according to a copy of his résumé provided by the water district.

Ethics and openness have been the subject of great debate at the water district since the spring, when three political newcomers challenged longtime board members in the election. The campaign was laced with allegations that water district board members and staff were personally benefiting from district assets and conducting business in secret.

Only one of the challengers, Mary Kelleher, won a seat — but the criticism of the district hasn’t waned.

Kelleher, for example, has abstained from voting on many issues involving major projects, saying she is concerned that some work may have been done in violation of open-meetings laws and is thus illegal.

Dallas businessman Monty Bennett, who owns an East Texas wildlife refuge where the water district wishes to build a pipeline, filed a lawsuit this year saying the district violated the Texas Open Meetings Act in approving parts of the $2.3 billion project. He said the board “rubber-stamped” decisions about the project without public deliberation.

Kelleher said Tuesday that she welcomes the hiring of Fischer. She said she would like him to provide a legal opinion on whether the board has conducted its meetings in accordance with the law.

She said she has asked other water district legal counsel for a briefing on the board’s open-meetings practices but has not gotten a response.

Board member Jim Lane said the district was “worn down” by allegations of ethical lapses and wants to put the matter behind it. He said he would like to end Kelleher’s practice of abstaining from most votes.

“I just want Mary to vote,” he said after the board meeting.

The discussion about hiring Fischer was presented Tuesday as an informational item and did not require a vote, Oliver said. He said the hiring won’t lead to additional costs because the district will use dollars already appropriated for legal counsel.

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