Heat turned up in water district raceMay 9, 2013
Special to the Fort Worth Business Press
The race for three open seats on the Tarrant Regional Water District board has turned into a hotly contested battle involving political action committees and unprecedented campaign spending.
Four challengers are vying to unseat long-time incumbents Vic Henderson, Hal Sparks and Jack Stevens in Saturday’s election. The three are aligned with the Clean Water Committee, a political action committee that formed to raise money for this race.
Running against them for the three open seats are John Basham, Timothy Nold, Mary Kelleher and Dwayne Herring. Basham, Nold and Kelleher are campaigning as a bloc with financial contributions from Hillco Partners, a political action committee.
While contested races are nothing new for this board, the amount of money that has been raised and spent has added up to the costliest election in the board’s known history.
Basham, who twice ran unsuccessfully for the board, has raised $226,250, including a $100,000 contribution from Dallas investor and businessman Bennie Bray, according to campaign finance reports. He has reported expenditures of $124,755.23 in the race, mostly for advertising and consulting fees.
The Clean Water Committee has raised $35,675 for the incumbents and reported expenditures of $21,856.
“We’ve had challengers for the board before but we have never had this kind of race,” said Henderson, who has served on the board on 1985 and is currently chairman of the five-member body.
“I’m in it to win,” said Basham, a consulting meteorologist. “I’m raising a lot of money because I told my supporters that is what it is going to take to win.”
The race has turned bitter as both sides are battling for the three-seat majority and, ultimately, control of the water district, one of the largest suppliers of raw water in Texas, serving more than 1.7 million people in North Central Texas.
Jim Oliver, general manager of the water district, said the challengers have engaged in a “smear attack” against the water district that is being bank rolled by Bray and another wealthy Dallas businessman, Monty Bennett, funneled through the PAC.
Both men own large ranches in Henderson County that would be impacted by a $2.3 billion pipeline the water district is building with the city of Dallas that would transport water 150 miles from Lake Palestine to the Dallas-Fort area, connecting with three other reservoirs along the route.
Bennett has sued the water district over the pipeline, contending that the Tarrant board – a government entity -- has violated the Texas open meeting laws and set up a system of circumventing public discussion of significant projects such as the pipeline. Public votes amount to a “rubber stamp” of decisions reached in closed private meetings, according to the lawsuit.
Since the water district has the power to access or condemn private land for the public good and is entrusted with billions of dollars of public money, the lawsuit seeks full public disclosure of district business and voiding the contracts related to the pipeline.
“The long and short of it is that this election is about the pipeline,” Oliver said. “We have about five years of capacity left. If we don’t get that pipeline built by 2018, we will run out of water.”
Basham said the issue is more about open government than the pipeline.
“I have always been the voice of reason for transparency,” Basham said. “This is all about the need for open government so important business isn’t done in secret meetings.
“If this pipeline is really necessary to bring water to the people of Tarrant County, I’m sure it will be built,” he said. “Since there has been no public meeting or open discussion about it so how would we know?”
Henderson said the pipeline and other key projects, including the Trinity River Vision, would most benefit from the combined 60 years of experience that he and the two other incumbents bring to the board.
“We have unfinished business, projects we want to see completed –projects that are in the best interest of the district, consumers and voters,” Henderson said.
The incumbents charge their opponents with misleading attack advertising, including on ad that suggests that district has spent lavishly on a luxury helicopter. The district owns a simple, utilitarian helicopter that is used to inspect pipelines and facilities in remote areas, Oliver said.
“We think they are upset that we have raised so much money, outspent them and are having a real impact on this race,” Basham said.