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Mary Kelleher Photo by Naomi Vaughan.

Mary Kelleher’s recent decision to run for office must have caused the downtown elite to burp up their Fort Worth Club lunches just a bit. Kelleher was a rabble-rouser who stirred up nothing but trouble for the status quo while serving on the board of directors at the Tarrant Regional Water District from 2013 to 2017.

On Saturday, May 4, the at-large election will be held to fill two of the board’s five positions, and Kelleher is eyeing one of them. The water district was created in 1924 to provide quality water to local residents while establishing flood protection. In recent years, the board has maintained a majority lockstep with water district general manager Jim Oliver no matter how far he strays from the mission. Under Oliver’s reign, district officials have become hyper-focused on economic development and recreational ventures symbolized by the $1.1 billion and growing Panther Island Project.

Board members Jim Lane and Marty Leonard, who help keep the district operating as a walled-off club of nepotistic, political-minded powermongers, have served on the board since 2006, dating back to the early days of the Panther Island plan. Creating a downtown lake similar to San Antonio’s River Walk with loads of urban housing, retail, and infrastructure sounded great if it were done as private development. Early on, however, critics objected to the district masquerading Panther Island as a flood control project relying on federal pork and local tax money while flexing eminent domain powers.

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In 2005, the Fort Worth Weekly issued a Turkey Award to Panther Island, known as the Trinity River Vision back then, for massive public spending on a “high-end real estate deal” that began as a relatively inexpensive flood control project. Fourteen years later, we’re saying the same thing.

Kelleher was the first board member to publicly challenge Oliver and district officials’ stretching of the truth and lack of transparency in their attempt to finance what has become known as The Boondoggle. For her trouble, Kelleher was censured by the board, chewed out by Oliver, and refused a key to the water district facilities. Her open records requests, like those of many reporters before her, were largely dodged. Once, water officials tried to bar her from an executive session, although Kelleher refused to budge from her seat.

In 2017, a heavily out-funded Kelleher lost her bid for re-election 

Now, she’s back for Round 2, hoping to deliver more ethical lessons to water officials who are still smarting from recent spankings. Federal money that has long been counted on to pay for Panther Island is drying up faster than a Crowley creek bed in July, and city officials, led by Mayor Betsy Price, are demanding more accountability from an agency that has made an art of keeping eyes and ears at arm’s length.

Kelleher was a simple ranch gal with no political experience when she ran and won that first election. Development near her East Fort Worth farm was causing flooding on her property, and she wanted to become involved in the agency that controlled such matters. She didn’t accomplish much against a stacked deck, although she forced a few victories, such as ensuring that board meetings held early on weekday mornings are livestreamed for the public. 

She hopes a second term will help her push the district toward fiscal responsibility and water issues rather than real estate development.

Water officials have “deviated too much from our original mission,” she said. “The Panther Island Project is out of control. There is little to no accountability for it.”

The two candidates with the most votes will nab the two open seats. Lane and Leonard are seeking re-election. Gary Moates and Charles “CB” Team have also entered the race. Moates is an attorney specializing in real estate law. Team works at Ellis & Tinsley Inc., a commercial real estate company whose founder, Vic Ellis, has “been appointed over 800 times by county and district judges as special commissioner in eminent domain cases,” according to the company website.

The two most recently elected directors – James Hill and Leah King in 2017 –– haven’t been as forceful and contrary as Kelleher but have shown streaks of independence. Hill is a bank executive. King is a vice president at the United Way of Tarrant County.

If Kelleher were to win a seat, there might be a glimmer of hope that a majority of autonomous thinkers could force Oliver and company to show a semblance of public accountability.

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