Court says Tarrant Regional Water District didn’t violate open meetings law

By Bill Hanna
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Originally published Nov. 28, 2014

The 2nd Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the Tarrant Regional Water District did not violate the Texas Open Meetings Act when it discussed a massive 149-mile pipeline project that will bring water from east Texas to Fort Worth and Dallas.

Dallas businessman Monty Bennett sued TRWD in 2013, arguing that the board circumvented the Open Meetings law by effectively making most of its decisions in two-person committees that the board then rubber stamped with little or no public discussion.

Bennett is fighting TRWD’s attempts to use eminent domain to run a section of the Integrated Pipeline Project through property that is surrounded by his ranch in Henderson County in East Texas.

But in a 2-1 decision, the 2nd Court of Appeals panel said it did not find that TRWD had violated the Open Meetings Act. Bennett’s lawyers had argued that violating Open Meetings Act would waive the water district’s sovereign immunity from a lawsuit.

“The legislature could not have been more clear,” Justice Bill Meier wrote in the majority opinion. “While a board’s meetings must be conducted in accordance with TOMA (Texas Open Meeting Act), meetings of the board’s committees in which less than a quorum of the board is present are not subject to TOMA’s open-meetings requirements.”

Justice Lee Ann Dauphinot disagreed in a dissenting opinion and said that the board’s two-person committee’s should be subject to the Open Meetings Act if they are effectively being used to conduct the board’s business.

“By allowing TRWD to have meaningful decisions take place in the committee meetings instead of in open board meetings, the majority approves of TRWD’s using what is in essence a walking quorum,” Dauphinot said. “In my opinion, Bennett raised a fact issue about whether TRWD conducts its business in violation of the water code and TOMA. I therefore dissent.”

The 2nd Court dismissed “Bennett’s claims against TRWD for lack of jurisdiction” and ordered Bennett to pay court costs. Bennett, who couldn’t be reached for comment, could still appeal the decision to the full seven-judge panel of the 2nd Court of Appeals or to the Texas Supreme Court.

TRWD spokesman Chad Lorance said TRWD is “pleased with the Court of Appeals’ ruling” and that it shows that the water district is following the law.

“The decision also marks the fifth time the courts have rejected positions asserted by or on behalf of Dallas County resident Monty Bennett in order to prevent the construction of a water pipeline needed to supply water to millions of our citizens across a small portion of recreational property he owns in East Texas,” Lorance said.

In fighting the lawsuit, TRWD accused Bennett of filing the litigation while also providing substantial financial support to candidates in the May 2013 election.

“The three candidates frequently mentioned [Bennett’s] lawsuit in their campaign literature disseminated before the election. These efforts to secure a majority of the Board failed and [Bennett] is pursuing this meritless case as part of an apparent strategy to modify or to shut down the pipeline project.”

Lorance also said the TRWD “does not and never has ‘rubber stamped’ any matter and that “unlike many governmental entities, TRWD does not have a summary ‘consent” agenda.’”

Last year, two separate lawsuits tried to compel TRWD to hold a May 2014 board election but both the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court declined to do so.

An East Texas legislator, State Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, also said he testified in September before a Henderson County grand jury after he brought a complaint to the Henderson County District Attorney against TRWD. District Attorney Scott McKee confirmed Gooden brought a complaint to his office but declined to say whether Gooden had testified.