Years removed from controversy, Tarrant water district earns state transparency award

dfwnewsa | March 6, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Years removed from controversy, Tarrant water district earns state transparency award

From left to right: Tarrant Regional Water District Board President Leah King, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar and water district Chief Financial Officer Sandy Newby celebrate the agency earning six “Transparency Stars” from the comptroller’s office on March 5, 2024. The water district is the first governmental entity in Texas to earn all six stars. (Mark Olson | Tarrant Regional Water District)
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Though he doesn’t live in the region, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar is no stranger to the scandals that once rocked the Tarrant Regional Water District. After arriving at the agency’s Fort Worth office March 5, Hegar alluded to those challenges as the comptroller’s office gave the water district its top award for financial transparency.

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“I was joking with the general manager, just kind of jokingly said, ‘OK, why we did we pick them?’” Hegar said. “Obviously, there was a protracted issue for a while. But I think that’s why it’s even more important, when an entity has a few bruises in perception and reality, for them to go above and beyond to correct that. I think in the last few years, there’s been a lot of effort to change that here.” 

Throughout 2021, the water district earned headlines amid a tumultuous exit by then-General Manager Jim Oliver, who threatened to sue the water district for age discrimination after board members rescinded an agreement to pay him more than $300,000 in extra compensation. Residents became a consistent presence at board meetings, accusing leaders of corruption and attempts to keep their decisions out of public view. 

The dispute, which ultimately ended in a legal settlement, revealed that Oliver repeatedly hired family members and, later, his girlfriend to work at the district. An internal survey conducted in 2022 found 40 familial relationships among the 333 people employed by the water district.

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“When I think about that leadership transition, really what happened was a crisis of public confidence,” said Dan Buhman, who succeeded Oliver as general manager. “And I think there was some good reason for that crisis, and I think we’ve made all the changes necessary to overcome it.” 

Some of those adjustments were on display Tuesday as water district leaders and board members celebrated earning all six stars from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts’ voluntary Transparency Stars program. The comptroller’s office recognizes local governments that publicly share information about traditional finances, contracts and procurement, economic development, public pensions and debt obligations. 

The water district became the first government entity in Texas to earn six stars after completing requirements for one focused on open government and compliance, Hegar said. Those requirements included ensuring easy access to board meetings, sharing information about board members and posting meeting recordings and agendas online, said Sandy Newby, the district’s chief financial officer. 

Hegar, who created the program in 2016, hopes the stars will inspire more public confidence in government and create a sense of competition among agencies. The water district was “absolutely competitive” in its desire to be first to earn all six stars, water district board president Leah King said. 

“This board set out to be much more open and transparent and to make things easier for anyone to find at any time, and when we were notified about the stars program, we knew that that’s what it was that we wanted to go for,” King said. 

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Before and after the public controversies in 2021, there was a hunger among water district staff to be more transparent, Buhman said. Shifts in water district leadership unleashed the staff’s potential to take action, he added. 

Dan Buhman, general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District, speaks to the board of directors in October 2021. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

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“It’s not just lip service, it’s really who we are,” Buhman said. “But how do you prove that? I think Comptroller Hegar coming is one evidence that we really are putting our money where our mouth is and making the changes necessary.” 

Activists have continued to scrutinize the water district’s actions over the past three years. During the spring 2023 election, several residents called for board members to end closed committee meetings and make them open to the public. The Water District Accountability Project has also supported moving meetings to an evening start time to make it easier for community members to attend. Board meetings are held monthly and begin at 9 a.m.

Doreen Geiger, who has attended several board meetings as a member of the Water District Accountability Project, said she was proud of the district for reviewing its transparency processes and earning the comptroller recognition over the past three years. 

“That doesn’t solve all the issues that we have with the water district,” Geiger said. “I’m not saying that just because they got these stars that they’re just the best of the best. I’m not. But what I am saying is that I am grateful for the water district going through the process, and it is quite a process.”

Buhman said he understands the water district is overcoming many years of public skepticism. 

“This helps us prove that we are doing the right thing, the right way,” he said. 

Hegar sees a larger lesson in the water district’s decision to focus on transparency. 

“Whether you’re a governmental entity that is recognized at this moment in time as the shining star, or you’re the one that has a few dings, either way getting to this level is going to be important for perceptions,” Hegar said. “And perceptions are reality.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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