The lawyer representing the former general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District said the $ 300,000 retirement allowance awarded to his client in March was a protected benefit, despite the board vote more early this week to revoke the payment.
AT a special meeting on Tuesday, the board announced that former board chairman Jack Stevens unilaterally granted outgoing chief executive Jim Oliver an exception to the water district’s paid vacation policy. The exception, confirmed in emails obtained as part of a public information request from Texas, would have allowed Oliver to accumulate three times the usual maximum of unused paid time off.
The additional allowance would have represented around a year’s salary for Oliver.
On Tuesday, board chair Leah King called the arrangement reckless and potentially illegal, and the board voted unanimously to revoke the planned payment.
But Jason Smith, the Fort Worth attorney representing Oliver, told the Star-Telegram on Thursday that it appeared the additional compensation had been properly arranged. In Smith’s view, this means the board can’t just reverse the arrangement.
“It appears that board policy was followed with the advice of legal counsel and that the Texas constitution protects employee benefits,” Smith said.
Arguing that Stevens was authorized to make an arrangement with Oliver, Smith pointed to a clause at the end of the district’s paid leave policy. This clause states that “exceptions to this policy may be made at any time by the general manager, deputy general manager, deputy general manager or members of the board of directors”.
In a March 8 memo obtained by the Star-Telegram, Stevens also cited district policy, writing that he was leading Oliver’s exception under “the authority granted by the paid leave policy of the Tarrant Regional Water District “.
King, the chairman of the board, declined to comment on Smith’s involvement or the claim that the intended payment was protected. The Water District, through a spokesperson, also declined to comment.
But King expressed concern that Stevens had not presented the compensation agreement to the board as a whole.
District lawyers conduct an “investigation” in the situation, King previously told the Star-Telegram. She said it was not clear when it would be over.
Smith, who said Thursday was his first day on the case, said he plans to schedule a meeting with the Water District in a few days.
“We look forward to the opportunity to reach a positive solution with the water district on this situation,” Smith said.
“A financial dilemma”
Less than a month before the compensation deal, internal emails obtained by the Star-Telegram show that Oliver initially intended to remain the district water chief executive for an additional year.
Oliver, who led the water district for 35 years, officially stepped down from his post on Wednesday. This allowed then deputy managing director Dan Buhman to take the top job after the board voted unanimously in May to hire him.
On February 11, Oliver wrote an email to members of the district’s board of directors, announcing his impending retirement in June 2021.
“Isn’t it 2022,” replied Stevens, then chairman of the board.
In response, Oliver explained that two other board members thought it was best to hire a new CEO in 2021 and then allow Oliver to stay and help with the transition for a year.
“Would you consider a shorter window to be a senior advisor than June 2022 if the board chooses?” Replied Marty Leonard, member of the board of directors.
In a multi-paragraph response to Leonard’s message, which he actually sent to an email address with his last name and first initial, Oliver explained that he was stepping down in 2021 so as “not to lose. Dan [Buhman] and give him a chance at the post of general manager.
Resigning a year earlier, Oliver wrote, he had thought he could stay with the Water District – potentially under the title of Senior Advisor – until the summer of 2022.
Separating from the district earlier “leaves me in a financial dilemma,” Oliver wrote, noting the change in district retirement plans. “My retirement scenarios work if I retire in June 2022.”
Documents from the Water District show Oliver was making around $ 325,000 after his salary hike in fall 2020.
“I have dedicated 35 years to the neighborhood. I believe I helped ensure that TRWD today has a reputation in the state and nationwide water community as one of the best of the best, ”Oliver wrote. . “My last year, in whatever capacity, will continue to be productive.”
“My door is open”
As the water district board grapples with the former general manager’s compensation deal, a new leader took the reins on Thursday.
Buhman said in an interview on Thursday that he plans to use his new post to step up efforts in favor of the opening.
“I think we have a great opportunity here in the future,” said Buhman. “I think it’s an opportunity to look to the future, not to look back and say ‘How can we be the best organization possible?’ “
But as Buhman stepped into the district’s lead role amid controversy, he said he was not directly involved in the case except when asked by the board of directors. For example, he said, the board asked him to recommend and hire a law firm to investigate the Stevens-Oliver arrangement.
Buhman said he recommended and then hired Thompson & Horton, which is not the typical district law firm, out of a desire to have a “fresh outlook” and “someone totally independent. “.
So far, Buhman said, his involvement has ended there.
“It’s really a problem for the board. As a staff, I just provide them with support where they want or need it, ”he said.
Nonetheless, Buhman said he intended to create a culture of transparency and openness.
The new chief executive said he plans to start by reviewing the district’s water policies and focusing on areas that need to be updated or rewritten. He also plans to build relationships with community leaders and residents.
“I am committed to open and transparent communication,” said Buhman. “My door is open to people who want to understand what the Water District does and why. “
He added that by revoking the Stevens-Oliver deal on Tuesday, the board sent a message that it was also concerned about transparency.
“I would say, let’s look ahead and you will see that our commitment to openness and transparency will become a reality. You see this already reported and now we’re going to do the hard work to make sure this happens, ”Buhman said.