From a Jack to a King: Payouts, hint of cronyism forced change on Tarrant water board

·3 min read

Now you see why we needed new leaders at the Tarrant Regional Water District.

Panther Island had become Crony Corner. The leaders known for their grand plan to straighten the Trinity River had become less interested in serving public floodway needs and more interested in serving themselves.

Two years before then-board President Jack Stevens of Azle started giving our money away like a TV game show host, he showed why city leaders eventually divided into two camps over how to finish the long-overdue downtown lake project.

You’ve read lately how Stevens awarded $300,000 in paid leave to one departing executive and then, days after he lost the May election, awarded $60,000 to another administrator, the son of Panther Island visionary U.S. Rep. Kay Granger.

Granger remains the project’s No. 1 champion, and says she’ll still get it built. But as years went by and misgivings have piled up, leaders like former Mayor Betsy Price have looked for a better way.

First, that required a better board president.

Stevens, a retired engineer, had moved up to lead the board in 2017 with the retirement of President Vic Henderson, a more savvy political operator.

In 2019, two directors were re-elected. After any election, most government boards reorganize and vote on new officers.

The current officers have to be renominated, make their case and face a vote. At the very least, they go through the motions of being held accountable.

But not Jack Stevens.

There was no board vote at all in 2019 on whether he should continue as president of the board overseeing a $152 million agency.

Stevens simply welcomed everyone back and plowed ahead, ignoring any discussion of his performance.

Unlike with school boards, for example, Stevens wasn’t legally required to call for a vote on officers, according to a lawyer from the district’s $1.8 million-a-year firm, Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell, Kelly & Taplett LLP.

Now, I’m not saying the board would have dumped Stevens. He still had the support of then-Vice President Marty Leonard of Westover Hills and director Jim Lane of Fort Worth, both aligned with Granger.

Leah King
Leah King

But his performance and the lack of Panther Island progress would have been open for discussion by Directors James Hill and Leah King of Fort Worth, both often siding with then-Mayor Betsy Price.

In May, voters in Fort Worth and the district’s five suburban cities finally held Stevens accountable.

Blamed for the ever-more-frustrating Panther project, Stevens finished last among seven candidates and was replaced on the board by returning Director Mary Kelleher of Fort Worth days after the lame-duck president granted $60,000 in paid leave to Panther Island executive J.D. Granger.

This time, directors held an election for new officers instead of allowing Leonard to preside.

King, president and chief executive of the local United Way charity and also treasurer of new Mayor Mattie Parker’s campaign, was chosen by directors on June 15 as the new board president.

She has promised to review TRWD policies that allowed the board president to order payouts and directors to bend rules.

As part of the review, she wrote by email on Friday, “we have the opportunity to make improvements to a number of areas, among them the election of officers.

“While things such as this were handled differently in the past, the Board will be discussing the best method for approaching these types of decisions going forward,” she wrote.

It can only get better.

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