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Even with more than $400 million in federal funds allocated due to the efforts of Democratic Congressman Mark Veasey, the $1.2 billion Panther Island project remains far from fully funded after nearly two decades. Courtesy TRWD

When Lon Burnam, Doreen Geiger, and several civic-minded locals founded the nonpartisan Water District Accountability Project in early 2021, the short-term goal was to raise public awareness of and monitor dealings at the governmental group tasked with providing water to more than 70 municipalities across 11 North Texas counties.

For decades, the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) had been plagued with accusations of wasteful spending and lavish business expenses that went unreported outside the occasional Weekly story. The 2021 announcement that TRWD’s longtime general manager Jim Oliver planned to retire prompted the accountability project members and Burnam, a former state representative, to plan for a long-awaited post-Oliver future. The recent death of TRWD board member Jim Lane created yet another opening for accountability project members to support new water district leaders.

The accountability group recently went public with a demand that Lane’s interim replacement, whom the water district must elect within 60 days of his late November death, not seek reelection in May when two of five TRWD seats are available.

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“In order to continue the commitment to transparency and accountability, it is imperative that the board maintain the beginnings of true transparency,” the statement reads, meaning the accountability group doesn’t want the board to handpick a candidate who then has an unfair advantage in May’s election.

TRWD elections have followed the old Fort Worth Way, said Burnam, referring to local elections that have historically been funded by special interests. The former state rep believes breaking historic lines of succession — board appointment, then election — is an important step to reforming business as usual at the water district.

“Jim Lane has been sick for so long,” he continued.

Burnam and company “started talking about [how to replace him] last summer.”

The accountability group recently publicly named six TRWD board candidates: Eva Bonilla, a business owner with vast civic board experience; Robert Griffin, a business owner with executive experience; Lee Henderson, a political strategist and recent Fort Worth city councilmember candidate; Tara Maldonado Wilson, a nurse and former Fort Worth city councilmember candidate; Deborah Peoples, a former business executive and recent county judge candidate; and Blake Woodard, a partner at Woodard Insurance.

Through public statements, TRWD’s board members have committed to voting on Lane’s replacement on Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 800 E. Northside Dr. Longtime board member Marty Leonard has stated that she will not seek reelection in May’s general election. TRWD board members are elected at large, so they are not assigned to specific districts.

Burnam said last year’s electoral ousting of TRWD board president Jack Stevens, whom Burnam characterized as a protector of TRWD’s status quo, was another step toward improved governance at the water district. Stevens was replaced by Mary Kelleher, a reform-minded critic of water district dealings and heavy proponent of transparency.

Burnam and Geiger said they have seen recent incremental progress at the water district. After years of controversy, J.D. Granger departed as head of the $1.2 billion Panther Island project, the long-stalled development that falls under the water district’s purview. J.D.’s mother, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, has long championed the waterfront development.

J.D.’s departure after 16 years of earning $242,216 annually may have been forced by a 2021 investigation, when the Tarrant County District Attorney looked into whether a settlement paid to outgoing Oliver violated state laws. Burnam’s group had long criticized the evidently nepotistic hiring of Kay’s son, which may have ultimately led to J.D.’s ouster.

Beyond complaining about J.D.’s political connections through his mother, the accountability group forwarded documents to the DA’s office that showed water district employees breaking large contracts into smaller ones as a means of skirting laws that require government projects to go through an open bidding process. The fudged agreements allowed water district officials to selectively award projects to personal friends, Burnam alleges. County prosecutors ultimately declined to press charges.

In January, and due to the work of Democrat Mark Veasey, whose congressional district includes Panther Island, the stalled waterfront development gained $403 million in federal funding from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Kay never received political support from Donald Trump for Panther Island, despite her vocal praise of the twice-impeached former president. In her initial press release about the $403 million, Kay did not mention Veasey once.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson said during a press conference at the time that the development was 50% complete and roughly three years out from completion. Geiger noted that full funding for the project is far from a certainty, and that shortfall may leave local taxpayers liable for the difference.

The Northside area under construction to create new water channels is the historic site of long-shuttered industrial projects that have likely left pollutants in the soil, based on reporting by the Star-Telegram. A water district spokesperson declined to comment on the potentially harmful effects of disturbing contaminated soil. TRWD board president Leah King did not respond to our requests for comment.

In 2020, Woody Frossard, the water district’s environmental director, told a Star-Telegram reporter that TRWD had spent $43 million to clean 137 acres of contaminated soil from the area that was home to a petroleum refinery, two metal refineries, and a metal reclamation facility several decades ago. Among the toxic materials removed were perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS, that accumulate in human bodies and resist breaking down.

A confidential source who closely monitors TRWD dealings told me that his main concern is current board members appointing personal friends to the board who could then run as incumbents in May’s elections.

Appointing candidates who lost in past elections would be a betrayal of the will of Tarrant County voters, he said.

Burnam said the departure of J.D., Lane, Oliver, and Stevens created a rare opportunity to improve government transparency and accountability at the water district. He said the board has historically failed in its job of governing TRWD business dealings.

“Almost anyone off the street could do a better job than what the incumbents have done” in managing TRWD, he said.

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