Exposed: Texas Cronyism and Secret Meetings Steal Citizen's Land Via Eminent Domain
Breitbart News has learned of a broad-ranging, long-term property seizure scheme in Texas’ Tarrant County Regional Water District, in which District employees have abused eminent domain privileges, forced homeowners and businesses off their properties, and awarded no-bid contacts via secret meetings that are never reported to the public.
The Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) was created in the 1920’s, originally designed with a mandate for water supply and flood control. The TRWD owns three lakes, operates five others, and oversees flood control inside the political boundaries of the district, while providing water supply to the Northern Trinity River Water Basin, which stretches across eleven counties in North Texas.
In the last decade, the TRWD initiated a billion dollar “economic development” project called Trinity River Vision. It has allowed the TRWD to seize vast tracts of private and commercial properties and spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money – always awarded in no-bid contracts to the same local firms.
Only a small part of Tarrant County’s population may vote for the five-person water district Board. Three seats are up for election on May 11th, with early voting already underway. Three challengers are seeking to return accountability and transparency to the Board.
The Master Plan
The power for a water district to seize property via eminent domain was first granted in 1995, under a bill authored by Rep. Gerald Yost, “to provide for the conservation, preservation, protection, recharging, and prevention of waste of the groundwater”. Eminent domain was strictly limited to issues involving water supply and flood control inside a given water district for these purposes.
The Trinity River Vision was created by the TRWD in 2003 and adopted by the Fort Worth City Council, permitting it to bypass any vote by residents. It was ostensibly designed to “preserve and enhance the river and its corridors.” Citizens complained the TRWD was engaging in economic development, using “flood control” as a fig leaf. The TRWD denied this allegation for two years, until 2005’s legislative session when HB 2639 granted enormous power specifically to the TRWD, and only the TRWD. The bill permitted the agency to "promote state or local economic development “, activities far exceeding its traditional flood control and water supply authority.
The bill also allowed the TRWD to create a non-profit corporation (The Trinity River Vision Authority), for which the power of eminent domain was further extended. Now, eminent domain – the power for the government to seize property – was suddenly in the hands of a non-profit corporation, with no public oversight. This gave the TRWD the power to seize any land for any reason, not only in the district, but anywhere it extended its “water service area” without public voter approval, allegedly to serve the “flood-control” project called Trinity River Vision.
With the way now clear for eminent domain seizures to make the Trinity River Vision a reality, Jim Oliver, the general manager of the TRWD, chose J.D. Granger to oversee the massive operation without conducting a job search. Granger’s previous occupation was an assistant district attorney, with no apparent experience in business, infrastructure, civil engineering, or water matters. His salary was set at $110,000 per year. Jim Oliver currently earns over $330,000 in annual salary.
Since then, enormous amounts of land have been seized via eminent domain. When asked for details regarding just how many properties this included, and the cost, TRWD spokesman Chad Lorance said access to that information required an open records request filing. However, the Tarrant County Appraisal District lists 591 properties owned by TRWD with an assessed value of some $414 million. As far back as 2010, the Fort Worth Business Press referred to Tarrant County as “the eminent domain capital of the world”.
The Texas Open Meetings Act generally requires 72-hour public notice prior to a meeting of a quorum of a governmental body that discusses public business. However, a clarification to the Act was placed in former Rep. Yost’s 1995 Texas Water Code legislation, under Section 36.064(b): “A meeting of a committee of the board…where less than a quorum…is present is not subject to the provisions of the Open Meetings Act”.
The TRWD seized on this exception, as it permitted secret committees to be formed in which as many as two, and possibly zero, Board members meet. A committee could consist of anyone the organizers chose. It could meet entirely in secret, with no notice given to the public. It could be held anywhere, at any time, for any reason. No minutes had to be recorded or published. No record of who attended had to be kept. Anyone could be invited, or excluded.
And so, for the past six years, eminent domain seizures and no-bid contracts have been discussed in dozens of secret meetings. Sources report individuals and businesses that would benefit from agenda items have attended meetings, while those who would suffer were not invited – or even knew of the meetings.
The public knows these secret meetings occurred because the committees issued recommendations, which were subsequently brought before the TRWD Board in an open meeting. However, rather than discuss issues in open debate, the Board moved directly to consideration of these secret committee’s recommendations, and holds a vote.
In the past six years, of the 60 meetings of the TRWD Board, the Board has unanimously approved 339 of 339 “recommendations” proposed by these secret committees.
Violations of the Law?
A common law interpretation of the Texas Open Meetings Act by the Texas Attorney General suggests these secret committee meetings violate the Open Meetings Act.
“Opinions of this office [Section III.D] have held that a standing subcommittee consisting of less than a quorum…is subject to the requirements of the act because of the danger that the full board might merely rubber stamp a subcommittee's decisions and thereby deprive the public of access to the decision-making process”.
That’s the allegation brought in a lawsuit against the TRWD (the plaintiff of which is an acquaintance from college) -- that the Board rubber-stamped these 339 secret committee “recommendations”. The lawsuit references a November 2010 issue of American Water Intelligence. That article reported that a water pipeline project (running through the plaintiff’s ranch and nature preserve) had been awarded to ten separate engineering firms. Subsequent to publication, minutes of the November 16 TRWD Board meeting revealed the Board’s rubber-stamp approval of only five companies, with five others approved in the meeting of December 21. How could a trade magazine have known that ten companies were going to receive contracts prior to meetings of the TRWD Board? The lawsuit alleges that a secret committee publicly leaked this information before the actual Board approvals, buttressing the “rubber stamp” allegation.
Former Rep. Gerald Yost said, “If committees are making [de-facto] decisions on any matter, eminent domain or otherwise…they are violating the intent of the bill. They need to be taken to court and actions of committees without approval or prior authorization should be voided”.
Should the court rule against the TRWD, all its actions could be nullified. If the TRWD conspired to avoid the Open Meetings Act, each offense is punishable by a fine of $100 - $500 and/or one to six months in jail. Further, Texas Penal Code Sec. 39.02(a) -- “Abuse of Official Capacity” – provides for First Degree Felony prosecution for any misuse of property or funds exceeding $200,000 belonging to the TRWD’s managers or Board members.
Where’s the Local Media?
Why hasn’t the Fort Worth Star Telegram reported on a story in its own backyard? Especially considering the TRWD’s offices are located on the bottom floor of the newspaper’s own building? John Basham, a challenger in the upcoming TRWD election, said that he has repeatedly contacted the newspaper with all the allegations reported in this column, and others, since 2008. According to Basham, the newspaper ignored him. A check of the paper’s archives turns up few stories questioning the propriety of TRWD, and no investigative articles. When asked about this last week, two editors at the Star Telegram refused to comment. The paper has run a smattering of articles in recent weeks, but focusing on the election rather than alleged improprieties.
Otherwise, the only significant mention of the TRWD was a full-page ad taken out in the paper last month, promoting the TRWD.
As former Rep. Yost said, “Too often, no one is paying attention to what these folks [water districts] do”. One might wonder if that goes for the Star Telegram, as well.
TRWD election challenger John Basham believes the TRWD Board to be unaware of secret committee specifics, suggesting Board members are either unconcerned with property seizures, or benefit from their own votes. He speaks of a bizarre culture of silence pervading TRWD offices, possibly to provide the Board with plausible deniability. Mr. Basham said, “Since announcing my TRWD candidacy, I’ve been contacted by current and former district employees . These good, hard working people all say that upper management at the TRWD and the TRV systematically keep the Board in the dark.” Mr. Basham also referred to a recent telephone conversation with TRWD director Jim Lane, in which, “I told him what the staff was saying to me about the Board being lied to, and Lane replied, ‘it wouldn’t surprise me a bit, because I’ve been in government long enough to see it all.’” Upper level staff includes Trinity Vision Manager Jim Oliver, J.D. Granger, and Planning Director Wayne Owen.
The $2.4 billion pipeline referenced in the above litigation would run from Lake Palestine to a junction between two other TRWD owned lakes, with the intent for TRWD and the City of Dallas to share Lake Palestine’s additional water. Yet why is TRWD proceeding with the project when its own internal study advised against it? The study’s authors concluded on Page 12 that, “It was not deemed practical for TRWD to use Lake Palestine except for extreme emergencies or to compensate for the unavailability of water due to infrastructure failure or maintenance.”
So, why might the TRWD’s secret committees award no-bid contracts to ten different firms for a $2.4 billion project when its own engineers think it's a bad idea?
Mr. Basham has made open records requests of TRWD, which failed to respond with any records, why records are being withheld, or a request to the Texas AG for an Exception -- all in violation of open records laws. Mr. Basham has prepared, and will be filing, a complaint with the Tarrant County D.A. and a writ of mandamus, requiring the TRWD to produce requested documents.
So, why is the TRWD stonewalling?
A 10-page, 4-color glossy report extolling the TRWD was mailed to district voters just in time for the election. Who paid for this publication? Were public funds used? Adrian Murray, a former challenger for the TRWD post, has filed ethics violations alleging use of TRWD’s public funds for political campaigns.
Campaign Finance Cronies
The TRWD election is on May 11th, and the incumbents appear alarmed -- with good reason. If they get bounced, the new Board members will have access to documentation hidden from public view.
Incumbent Jack Stevens disrupted an event held by the challengers. One attendee reported he “appeared flustered by difficult questions posed to him by participants”. Incumbent Jim Lane left a panicked voicemail for Mr. Basham, forwarded to this reporter, saying he “wanted to take issue with these campaign measures [you’re using]…[you have] an overzealous campaign manager, spending a whole lot of money…”
This is particularly unusual considering Mr. Lane is not even running for re-election.
There are a lot of parties supporting the incumbents in an election that shouldn't merit this much attention. The incumbent’s campaign financing documentation lists donors that include several engineering firms that have directly benefitted from the TRWD’s no-bid contracts: Freese & Nichols PAC; Daniel Buhman; James J. Parrish; Edward Motley and Gregory Welch (CH2M Hill); Lockwood, Andrews and Newman PAC; David Yanke (SAIC Engineering); CDM Smith PAC; William Dillon, Dorian French, and Carl Krogness (Brown & Gay); and the aforementioned Wayne Owen – just to name a few.
The incumbent PAC’s Treasurer is Eric Fox, the government affairs lobbyist for Lockheed Martin. Why is a lobbyist for one of America’s largest companies, identified as the 20th most powerful person in Fort Worth, spending his time running a PAC for a water district election?
Do any of these contributors have undisclosed financial interests in the Trinity River Vision?
An Election That Matters
The Water District election is complex. The portion of the ballot where voters are asked to select Board candidates is the last item on the entire ballot. Voters are asked to vote for “none, one, two, or three” members of the Board. All three challengers must win in order to remove all three incumbents. The challengers promise to return transparency and responsive government to the district.
Challengers John Basham, Timothy Nold and Mary Kelleher are intent on removing the incumbents. Mr. Basham has publicly said he is concerned about corruption.
”I don’t think these people went into government corrupt, but the old saying is true. One bad apple can spoil the whole barrel and this particular barrel is rotten to the core”.
Lawrence Meyers blogs at www.ichabodscranium.com
Follow him at @ichabodscranium