Mary Kelleher was elected just a few weeks ago to the board of the Tarrant Regional Water District, on a platform of demanding transparency from the agency. Last Friday, she found out just how hard that job will be.
In a letter addressed to TRWD General Manager Jim Oliver and also sent to other district board members on Tuesday, Kelleher described an encounter with Oliver in which, in response to Kelleher’s request to a staff member for records, she says Oliver angrily confronted her, yelled at her, beat on his chest, and demanded that all future requests be made to him. She also noted his “similarly inappropriate” attitude toward John Basham, who ran unsuccessfully for the water board.
In the light of those actions, Kelleher wrote, she thinks the water board should reconsider Oliver’s continued employment or at least require him to take anger management training.
In her letter, Kelleher repeated her assertion that, as a member of the water district’s governing board, she has a legal right to review the documents she requested.
“I take very seriously my responsibilities as an elected official, and I expect that my attempts to provide necessary oversight in the future will not be met with raised voice, chest-pounding, disrespect, and other behavior unacceptable for a public servant, let alone the senior executive member of the TRWD,” she wrote.
“In the light of these repeated outbursts, in my view, the district should consider whether it is appropriate for you to continue in your current position and/or whether you should be required to take anger management training,” she wrote.
Kelleher attached to the letter a printout of e-mails between Basham and Oliver on May 6. In the taunting exchanges, Basham referred to a hypothetical government employee using government facilities to seek votes for certain people running for office and to spread libelous information about other candidates, suggesting that perhaps one such call had been recorded.
In his replies, sent from his water district e-mail account, Oliver called Basham a “loser” and said, “Imagine if you were … bankrupt, with your house foreclosed and pretending to be a meteorologist with no education. Oh, wait a minute, you don’t have to imagine because it’s you.”
Oliver’s actions, and the revelation that some of the records she requested do not exist, have increased her concerns over whether the district is fully complying with the Texas Open Meetings Act, Kelleher wrote. “It is conduct such as this that motivated my request” that an outside law firm be hired to conduct an independent analysis of the water board’s compliance with that law.
Fort Worth Weekly obtained a copy of the letter from a source other than Kelleher. Reached by phone on Wednesday evening, Kelleher declined to go into any further detail about the confrontation with Oliver. “I would prefer that to be handled internally,” she said. “I think my letter pretty much covers it.”
In her letter, Kelleher requested that most of the documents she had asked originally for be provided to her by Wednesday afternoon (June 26), along with other documents she added to the request, and that the rest be provided by Thursday. She noted that she was not making a request under the state’s open records act –– which gives government agencies 10 working days to reply –– but as a member of the board itself.
Kelleher said Wednesday evening that, following delivery of her letter, she had received an e-mail reply from Oliver indicating that some of the records did not exist, that some of them would be mailed to her, and that on others, the water district staff would seek an opinion from the state attorney general as to whether they had to release the documents. She said Oliver wrote that the water district staff would search for records regarding lobbyists and respond later.
She said that the tone of Oliver’s e-mail was professional and to the point.
According to the letter, last Friday Kelleher went to TRWD records manager Nancy King and asked for minutes and recordings from all the board’s executive sessions since June 2012, as well as minutes and recordings from all meetings of the board’s Construction and Operation Committee during the same time period.
She also asked for e-mails sent to political consultant Bryan Eppstein, documents reflecting contracts with and payments to lobbyists, records of payments to the engineering firm of Freese & Nichols over the last three and a half years, and all of the e-mail correspondence of TRWD board members, Oliver, planning director Wayne Own, and J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, over approximately the past two months.
Additionally Kelleher asked for numerous documents relating to any real estate transactions between the water district and Oliver or any entity controlled or owned by him.
She said that Oliver’s response, following her letter, indicated that there are no records of any real estate transactions between Oliver and the water district.
Kelleher said that in response to her initial request, King had earlier told her that no minutes or recordings exist of executive sessions or of meetings of the construction committee.
At that point, Kelleher asked instead for agendas of all those executive session and committee meetings and was told they existed and that, if she returned later the same day, they would be provided to her. However, rather than being given those records when she returned, she was confronted by Oliver and was not given any records at that time.
Kelleher said she was shocked to be told that some of the records had not been kept. “As much money as the TRWD handles, I think I just assumed that they kept more records about it,” she said. “It just surprised me how little is documented.”
Putting aside the question of Oliver’s actions, Kelleher said that her reception on the board thus far has been about what she expected. “I know what I am up against,” she said. “My fellow board members … do not see what I see.”
She said people come up to her in the grocery store and elsewhere and tell her how concerned they are that TRWD board meetings are frequently held during the work day, when many people find it difficult to attend. “The general public opinion is that the agency isn’t open enough,” she said.
Kelleher said she has been assured by her attorney that she has a right to the records she asked for. Her requests shouldn’t have come as a surprise, she said.
“When we ran for election, we all said that our main goal was transparency and open government, and my goal was to request records and find out what’s going on over there,” she said. “This was my first attempt at that.
“It’s my job to help oversee operations of the TRWD,” she continued. “I take it seriously and just want to make sure I’m serving the public like I said I would. I had to start somewhere.”
In the letter, she wrote that if Oliver continues to block what she considers to be proper oversight of the water district, “I will be forced to take all necessary actions to fulfill my duties. … I will not be stopped or intimidated in my efforts to fulfill my responsibilities.”
The water district issued a statement Thursday afternoon describing Oliver’s version of the encounter. According to the statement, Kelleher, “accompanied by two unidentified males, appeared unannounced at the district offices on June 21 and requested numerous documents from staff, including some that were confidential in nature.”
Release of the confidential documents would have violated state law, according to the water district. Oliver “advised Ms. Kelleher during a meeting later that day that requests for such information are typically addressed to the general manager and reviewed by general counsel for compliance with all laws,” the statement said. “Staff members confirmed that Mr. Oliver did not raise his voice during that discussion.”