Texas water board soaks public at ‘high-dollar’ conference

By Kenric Ward

The state board responsible for water policy planning has all but closed a three-day meeting to the public this week.

Admission to Water for Texas 2017 can only be obtained by buying tickets — ranging from $100 to $525 — through a private hosting company, CMP Management.

The Texas Water Development Board, a public entity, is putting on the program, billed as “showcas[ing] innovative scientific, planning and financial solutions to water challenges.”

Among the agenda items: “Texas water policy.”

“Featured speakers” include Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and several state legislators, led by state Sen. Charles Perry, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs. Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, is also on the program.

Bill Aleshire, a freedom-of-information law attorney in Austin, protested the selective access to the conference.

“Labeling a board meeting as a ‘conference’ does not exempt the meeting from the Texas Open Meeting Act,” Aleshire wrote in a warning letter to the TWDB on Sunday.

Aleshire asserted that a quorum of TWDB will be present at the conference, a trigger for open-meeting requirements.

TWDB spokeswoman Merry Klonower responded in a statement:

“The Water for Texas 2017 conference does not constitute a violation of the Open Meeting Act because a quorum of members of the governing body of the Texas Water Development Board will not be present at any one time, except during the ceremonial awards banquet on Tuesday evening.”

“There are costs associated with putting on a conference, such as venue fees. The registration costs allow the agency to cover conference costs,” Klonower said.

Aleshire wasn’t persuaded.

“I disagree that they can wink at the quorum requirement the way they are at an event where the entire board will be in attendance and the event is all about the TWDB’s mission. It’s real close to a walking quorum effort to circumvent the requirements of Open Meeting Act,” the attorney said.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the water board cannot “shirk its duties by delegating to a private group organizing logistics.”

“Water is such an important issue to our state. Besides being an open meeting violation, the board ought to want as much public input as possible. By making it off limits with a very high fee is off-putting to those who want to wade in on water issues,” she told Watchdog.

Michele Gangnes, an attorney who represents rural water interests in Central Texas, called TWDB’s “high-dollar event an extension of the way the public was treated by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs. Those most personally affected by the battles over groundwater were rebuffed when they requested the opportunity to testify at the committee hearings.”

“Now those same rural landowners who want to conserve the groundwater they own and protect our aquifers from being drained by profiteers, to the detriment of all Texans, are effectively excluded once again,” Gangnes complained.

Linda Curtis, president of Independent Texans, a Bastrop-based activist group, suspects mischief behind the pay wall at “Water for Texas 2017.”

“We cannot allow slick special interests to sip champagne and deal away what belongs to us. These big shots want to drain our wallets as dry as they want to drain the aquifers,” Curtis said.

This article originally appeared at Watchdog.org.

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