Breitbart News has learned of a possible attempt by the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) to withhold public information and violate the news media’s First Amendment rights. This action is in response to a newly-elected public official’s attempts to halt a long-running eminent domain scheme, which has stolen countless properties from innocent citizens and businesses under the guise of “economic development.”
In last month’s Water District election, challenger Mary Kelleher won one of three seats on the five-person Board of the TRWD, receiving the most votes in district history. Kelleher was part of a three-person reform-minded slate which promised transparency for voters and an end to secret committee meetings where eminent domain seizures and no-bid engineering contracts were awarded (as reported here) without public input.
Kelleher immediately asserted her stance, calling for transparency at her swearing-in on June 18, demanding independent audits of District finances and for strict adherence to the Texas Open Meetings Act (violations of which the District is being sued for). This comes on top of her criticism of the District’s judgment in pursuing an ill-advised attempt to siphon water from Oklahoma, for which it was roundly humiliated by a unanimous Supreme Court ruling earlier this month (following a summary judgment at the state level that was affirmed by the district court). The project cost taxpayers $5 million.
This past Friday at Kelleher’s invitation, Breitbart News joined her and attorney Matt Hill at TRWD headquarters in Fort Worth, where she asked for numerous records from Information Officer Nancy King. Breitbart News videotaped the exchange in the event Kelleher received any resistance. While King politely and professionally responded to Kelleher’s requests, General Manager Jim Oliver later allegedly confronted Kelleher after Breitbart News departed the premises.
Kelleher reported that Oliver requested to meet with her, and they entered a secretary’s office, where Oliver closed the door. Kelleher claimed that Oliver was “red-faced with anger and disbelief, totally lost his cool, and raised his voice” throughout the meeting:
KELLEHER: Are you going to yell at me?
OLIVER: No, I’m just going to set some ground rules for you. You can submit an open request as a citizen, but if you request a record as a Board Member, you need to go through me!
KELLEHER: Where is that written? I’m not in kindergarten and you won’t talk down to me.
OLIVER: You can’t bring a camera into the building. Who was that?
KELLEHER: Lawrence Meyers.
Kelleher reported that Oliver’s face turned crimson; she said she opened the door to the office so all could hear the exchange.
OLIVER: You think this is funny! This is our lives! I know you’re just taking orders from your group!
KELLEHER: I don’t take orders. You won’t tell me what to do either. I’m leaving. I will not be spoken to like this.
OLIVER: You won’t come in here again with a cameraman!
KELLEHER: I want you to show me where it’s written, and if that’s the law, I’ll consider it.
OLIVER: Then you won’t get in the building!
Oliver could not be reached for comment, although his behavior is apparently consistent with one blogger’s description of him being “out of control”. Former Board challenger John Austin Basham said, “Jim Oliver’s threats toward Director Kelleher are not surprising. This is a man who has been telling the Board Directors what they can and can’t do for years. Now Director Kelleher has reminded him of his place and he doesn’t like it one bit.” Former Fort Worth Councilman Clyde Picht said, “She should call for Oliver’s firing for both this and the character attack on John Basham. Add in the failed lawsuits, and she’ll find public sympathy”.
Attorneys familiar with Texas’ Open Records Act believe Kelleher, as a duly elected District official, has the right to access all records and need not do so through the procedures outlined in the Open Records Act. She certainly does not need to do so through Oliver, whether as public official or member of the public. The law clearly states that such requests would go through Information Officer King, and that if Oliver was even appointed as Information Officer, he would be required to complete Open Records Training – which he apparently requires in any event.
Oliver’s attempt to stonewall Kelleher is not unfamiliar to citizens seeking access to public records. Breitbart News has made numerous specific requests to the TRWD, often for narrow or limited pieces of information, only to have attorney Kyle T. Gray (of the District’s general counsel, the law firm of Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell, Kelly, and Ray, LP) attempt to delay and obfuscate the process by responding with requests for “clarification,” offering material that will be redacted at requestor’s expense, or appealing to the Attorney General for a ruling on whether the requested material need be released.
Mr. Basham said, “Hiding every document and meeting possible from the public eye is the only way Jim Oliver and his cronies have been able to hide so much wrong-doing. The law firm has been directed to road-block every open records request with legal hurdles until Joe Citizen gets so frustrated that he gives up.”
All this raises the question: what is the TRWD hiding? Why does the District need a law firm to respond to every single Open Records request? While the statute allows for reasonable exceptions to some requests, none by Breitbart News or John Austin Basham requested information for which such exceptions would apply. Furthermore, the statute is clear in its intent:
Sec. 552.001. POLICY; CONSTRUCTION. (a) Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. The provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy [emphasis added].
This obfuscation, however, appears to have only strengthened Kelleher’s resolve.
“I requested that Breitbart News accompany me to the TRWD to send a message to the Board and its employees — it’s time for complete transparency. The public must have access to the District’s records. The Board must order Pope & Hardwicke to cease the stonewalling. Nancy King must give all members of the public access to those records that do not clearly fall under the statute’s exceptions.”
Citizens feel that, thus far, the TRWD has utterly failed in its mandate to control area flooding. The TRWD will fair no better in any attempt to stop any media outlet from entering or filming in a public building, or in stopping the flood of citizens that are now providing this news outlet with details of their harrowing experiences with the TRWD’s capricious and punitive seizures of property, low-ball eminent domain offers, and allegations of cronyism and self-dealing.