Trust, transparency and Panther Island: Candidates debate vision for Tarrant Regional Water District
With Panther Island development on the horizon and a widely publicized scandal in the rearview mirror, candidates for the Tarrant Regional Water District’s board of directors laid out their ideas for keeping the agency on course at a March 30 forum.
River Oaks Mayor Joe Ashton, locomotive engineer Chad Moore, developer Paxton Motheral and incumbent Charles “C.B.” Team are running for two spots on the water district board in the May 6 election. Team, a real estate broker, was appointed to his seat in January after longtime board member Jim Lane died in November. Marty Leonard, who served 17 years on the board, is vacating the other open seat.
All four candidates participated in a forum at the Texas A&M Law School co-sponsored by the nonpartisan and nonprofit Fort Worth Report, KERA and civic engagement group Steer FW.
Fort Worth ISD and Tarrant County College trustee candidates also spoke during the forum. A previous forum featured Fort Worth mayoral and council candidates for districts 4, 7 and 11.
Increasing transparency at TRWD
Since the most recent board election in 2021, the water district’s leadership has transformed. Dan Buhman took over as general manager in July 2021 amid a tumultuous exit by Jim Oliver, who threatened to sue the water district for age discrimination after board members rescinded an agreement to pay him more than $300,000 in extra compensation.
Oliver’s dispute, which ultimately ended in a legal settlement, revealed that he had repeatedly hired family members and later his girlfriend to work at the district. An internal survey conducted last year found 40 familial relationships among the 333 people employed by the water district.
Since then, board members have adopted new policies aimed at curbing nepotism and earned state recognition for financial transparency.
However, Motheral and Ashton said the water district can do more to improve trust between the agency and the customers it serves. TRWD is responsible for supplying water to more than 2 million people, managing the Trinity River floodway in Fort Worth and providing recreational opportunities near water sources.
“It was an unfortunate situation with what the water district found themselves in several years ago,” Motheral, who serves as board president of the Trinity River-focused Streams and Valleys, said. “I’m going to be a big proponent of transparency at the water district … The policies have become much more robust than what was in place at the time. But we need to continue that effort of transparency and have good hiring practices as we continue to move forward.”
Moore said he was inspired to run after reading a Fort Worth Weekly article about problems with the current board’s transparency. As a locomotive engineer, he said, he has a lot of time to sit and think through issues himself.
“I know that I don’t know everything, but I am committed to learning and listening,” Moore said. “I want to do right by the citizens and I want to bring a citizen-focused perspective to the board.”
Board members should consider moving their meeting time from a monthly Tuesday morning meeting to an evening time so more residents can attend, said Ashton, who also serves as Pantego city manager. He also suggested eliminating internal board committees – or at least making committee meetings open to the public.
Ashton also expressed concern about who is eligible to cast a vote for a TRWD board member. Currently, only people who live in the water district’s taxing district are eligible to vote or run for a board seat. Established in 1949, the taxing district is primarily in Fort Worth and funds operation and maintenance of the 27-mile Fort Worth floodway.
Board members should explore ways to expand the taxing district so that people living in cities like Arlington and Mansfield – which purchase water from TRWD – can vote for the board, Ashton said.
Team ran on a platform of transparency in his 2021 candidacy for the board, he said, with a goal of holding water district staff accountable. He’s spent his three months in office speaking to community groups and making himself accessible to residents, Team said.
“Steering a ship is not easy – it takes time, it takes effort, it takes lobbying,” Team said. “I’d like to get four more years to be able to continue to steer that ship. It’s moving in the right direction, but you can’t take your hand off the wheel even for a second.”
Beyond addressing concerns expressed by watchdog groups like the Water District Accountability Project, candidates shared their vision for educating the public about the agency’s accomplishments. Last May, the agency celebrated opening the $2.3 billion Integrated Pipeline Project, a 150-mile pipeline connecting East Texas lakes to North Texas water utilities.
TRWD must do a better job of communicating with residents about the agency’s purpose, all of the candidates agreed. Moore joked that a few months ago, he was the resident who didn’t understand the purpose of the water district.
“One thing I think they could do that they don’t really do well is social media,” Moore said, suggesting that TRWD should launch an internship for students to run the district’s accounts. “I follow the TSA. I follow national parks. I follow the Fort Worth Zoo because they’re great follows.”
What is TRWD’s role in overseeing Panther Island?
In addition to its day-to-day function as water supplier to the western half of North Texas, TRWD is also the local sponsor of the Central City Flood Project, widely known as Panther Island.
Since early 2022, the $1.16 billion infrastructure project has received federal funding, including an additional $20 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in March. The project needs $98 million more in federal dollars to be considered fully funded.
The Panther Island project, which has experienced decades of delays and resulting controversies, would build a 1.5-mile bypass channel to reroute part of the Trinity River. In the process, leaders expect the resulting “riverwalk” to transform real estate development in downtown Fort Worth and the Northside community.
Motheral said the water district board has an important role to play in ensuring Panther Island’s flood control elements come to fruition. The city of Fort Worth has taken the lead on the economic development portion of the project, selecting HR&A Advisors Inc. to map out the future of development in and around Panther Island.
“I’m fully supportive of the plan that was outlined in the recent strategic plan by the general manager, to follow through with the vision and strategically dispose of the real estate and get the water district out of the real estate development business,” Motheral said.
Ashton was more measured about the strategic plan. While he isn’t necessarily against the general manager’s plans, Ashton said, it’s important for whoever is elected next to take a hard look at the project and how local leaders will move forward.
“The fact that it’s 2023 and we’re now looking into how to recast … the vision and how to actually achieve it, that goes to show why there needs to be new blood and multiple fresh sets of eyes on the board of directors for this district,” Ashton said. “You can’t stop it now at this point. The horse is out of the barn, it’s water under the bridge, but we do need to have those fresh sets of eyes.”
Team cautioned that Panther Island is a project decades in the making, and millions have already been invested into various smaller aspects of the project. The board must continue to support the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and advocate for the next round of funding that is required to complete the project.
“This is not a project that is going to be done tomorrow,” Team said. “If you look at the current timeline, it’s still going to be 2029. I want to try to keep it on that timeline as current as possible.”
Expanded powers for general manager
Weeks before the forum, board members – including Team – approved a new policy allowing Buhman to renew governmental advocacy, public relations and insurance contracts of $75,000 or more without seeking a vote. Board members regularly review agreements to build pipelines and other infrastructure projects related to water supply as well as recreational programs.
Buhman will be required to notify the water district’s administration and policy committee of any renewals. Board members can then decide whether to bring those contracts to the board for discussion or allow the renewal to move forward without another vote.
Because of his job as a real estate developer at Cassco Development Co., Motheral said he understands the need to review contracts closely. The board must continue to understand that they are approving initial contracts as well as the terms of possible renewals, he said.
“It’s incumbent upon the board to continue to evaluate who those companies are that we’re doing business with, and raise a hand and ask questions if we don’t think they’re doing the job right, and make that known to the general manager so they can make a change if it’s needed,” Motheral said.
Ashton didn’t agree with the board’s decision to give Buhman additional authority over contracts. Board members should not meddle with Buhman’s day-to-day operations, Ashton said, but they must maintain their oversight role going forward.
“The board has a responsibility to review those contracts before they’re renewed,” Ashton said. “If it’s a contract that is rolled over, the board still needs to consider it. I believe that is a very important function that the board needs to reserve for itself.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at email@example.com.