More Open or More Obstructive?
Accusations of being secretive and working behind closed doors have dogged the Tarrant Regional Water District and its board of directors ever since they began overseeing the controversial Trinity River Vision project 10 years ago. So some residents might have felt a glimmer of hope when water district general manager Jim Oliver told board members last week that the former chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission had been hired to help handle the district’s growing number of requests for public information and to provide consultations on ethics-related matters.
Gov. Rick Perry appointed Austin attorney Ross Fischer to the Texas Ethics Commission in 2005, where Fischer helped regulate political campaigns, lobbyists, and political action committees for five years. He has also lectured on legal ethics for the State Bar of Texas and the University of Texas’ continuing legal education program.
Water district board member Mary Kelleher is among those who initially felt encouraged by Oliver’s announcement. Fischer is joining the agency charged with supplying water to almost 2 million people in the area.
“If what the TRWD is hiring him to do is to help it be more transparent and accountable to the taxpayers, I think that would be great,” she said. “I’m hopeful he will be helpful in convincing the administration that they work for the taxpayers and [that] the taxpayers are entitled to know what is going on.”
Kelleher sees some positive changes. Water district staff have begun posting online videos of board meetings and publicizing some committee meetings. The staff is considering testing the Trinity’s water quality once a week, rather than once a month, and publishing the results. And more seating has been made available for visitors at board meetings.
However, Kelleher’s hope dimmed when she realized that she’d run across Fischer’s name a few days before. On Nov. 5 she had submitted a public information request seeking what she considered basic information on district records. She received a response from Fischer 10 days later, on his Austin law firm’s letterhead.
The response was similar to many of those that residents have received when soliciting public information: in the eyes of Kelleher and others, the runaround.
“At such time as you are able to provide us with your written reply to this letter, for purposes of clarifying or narrowing your request, we will attempt to respond to your clarified request at that time,” he wrote.
Kelleher had anticipated such a reply when she submitted the request –– she included a note to Oliver that said, in part, that the water district “has expended extraordinary efforts to deny information to the general public” and used “technicalities to wiggle out of your duties and legal requirements.”
Kelleher now wonders whether Fischer is here to provide transparency or just to act as another obstacle.
The water district has typically sent public information requests to a local law firm to handle. Lawyers there often reply to the effect that the agency is unable to provide the information in the manner requested without further clarifications.
“I’m hesitant to readily accept anyone who is hand-chosen to perform any action at the TRWD,” Kelleher said.
Fischer’s hiring, at least in part, is in response to Kelleher’s joining the board in May. She was among a slate of challengers who tried to unseat three of the board’s longstanding members; she was the only one to win a seat. She finds herself at odds with the other board members and Oliver on many occasions. She has accused the water district of ignoring the Texas Open Meetings Act by hammering out most matters in closed-door committees and then rubber-stamping votes during board meetings.
“If decisions are going to be made at the committee level, the committee level should be held to the same standards of the Open Meetings Act,” she said. “Agendas should be published.”
She has refused to vote during board meetings until the water district solicited an outside legal opinion on whether its meetings adhere to state laws.
“This maybe could help you be satisfied that we’ve hired the best we can to see what we’re doing,” board member Jim Lane said to Kelleher during the meeting. “I don’t know how we could hire anyone more qualified than this guy. If we’re doing something wrong, he’ll tell us we’re doing something wrong.”
The Texas Ethics Commission has scrutinized longstanding board members and their most vocal critics alike. In April, Fort Worth businessman Adrian Murray filed separate complaints against the then-incumbent board members — Vic Henderson, Hal Sparks, Jack Stevens, Marty Leonard, and Jim Lane — accusing them of spending public money on a glossy, 10-page campaign mailer.
In September, Azle businessman Jerry Jenkins filed a complaint against Kelleher and fellow challengers John Basham and Timothy Nold. Jenkins alleged that $125,000 the trio received from Dallas businessman and rancher Monty Bennett through a political action committee was improperly reported on campaign forms, with the intent of hiding the donor’s identity. Both cases are still pending.
Oliver said the district had selected Fischer from the law firm of Denton, Navarro, Rocha & Bernal, a “firm I’ve known about for some time.”
The district had typically received fewer than 50 open-records requests a year, but in 2013 that number grew to 125. It was time to bring in an expert to help with requests, he said.
Board president Vic Henderson applauded the new hire.
“It is important that we have an independent and recognized open-government expert in this area to review our public information process,” he said. “I’m confident that we are not only handling the growing number of public information requests promptly and properly, but that we actually are going beyond state law to fulfill these requests,” he said.
Calls to Fischer were not returned for this article.
Kelleher described Fischer’s response to her information request as continuing the “delay-and-hide tactics” that the water district has become known for.
Now she’s hopeful in a different way.
“I’m hopeful that this letter is not indicative of why Mr. Fischer was hired,” she said. “It would be a shame if the TRWD hired Mr. Fischer to help it obscure information from the public instead of to make it more transparent.”