Thursday, April 25, 2024

Water board again delays decision as tensions over Hood seat amp up

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The Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District board, at its regular monthly meeting in Springtown last week, once again tabled the seat appointment for Hood County that has put the board at the center of a political tug-of-war.

The stakes could be high. At the heart of the issue is development and its effect on water availability, not only for future generations but for those who invest in expensive homes on two-acre lots assuming that a well will supply their water needs.

The rights of property owners are also part of the equation, though, and there have been disagreements over the interpretation of data where the state of the aquifer is concerned.

The UTGCD covers Hood, Montague, Wise, and Parker counties. Records show that Parker County, where a good deal of development is occurring, has been drilling more groundwater wells than any other county in the state.

Hood County has been drilling far fewer wells than Parker County, but it is seeing its share of development as well. In 2018, the United States Census Bureau ranked Hood County the ninth fastest growing county in the country based on growth that occurred during a year’s time.

Commissioners courts in each county that is part of the UTGCD, appoint two members to its board. When a seat is vacated, commissioners’ courts can make a recommendation, but the UTGCD board makes the decision.

Due to an unusual and politically charged set of circumstances, the board was given two recommendations for the open Hood County seat: Mike Massey and Bob Lusk.

The board’s decision, now moved to February due to the absence of board member Tim Watts of Parker County, won’t just determine who wins the seat on the eight-member panel. It will also resolve whether Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle’s strategy to reverse a previous majority vote of the Commissioners Court, one that did not go his way, was a winning one.

There is another reason as well why the vote will be noteworthy: It may indicate whether board members vote solely on who is the most qualified, or whether their decisions might be influenced by other factors.

Massey served on the UTGCD board for 12 years and was its president for six of those years. That is why those who favor his appointment believe he is the most qualified. In 2019, when the board’s recommendations for wider well spacing drew outrage from developers, realtors, and others, he was not reappointed to the seat he had held since the UTGCD was formed in 2007.

At Thursday night’s meeting, at which both Massey and Lusk were present, board member Mike Berkley of Montague County made a motion to seat Massey. It was seconded by Don Majka of Wise County.

However, before a full vote was taken, the board decided to go into closed session. When they reopened the public meeting, Berkley and Majka withdrew their motion and second. The board unanimously agreed to table the decision until the board’s next regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 16 in hopes that all seven members will be present to participate in the vote.

Five are needed for any motion to be adopted.

Adding to the tension in the ongoing situation is whether Eagle’s comments to the board that night gave the false impression that County Judge Ron Massingill, who had voted for Massey, supported replacing his nomination with one for Lusk.

Massingill, who was not present at the January board meeting, said he intends to be there for the one in February. 

THE HISTORY

The dust-up began last November when the Commissioners Court voted 3-2 to nominate Massey for the seat vacated by Richard English. Massingill and Precinct 3 Commissioner Jack Wilson voted in favor of his appointment, as did then-Precinct 2 Commissioner Ron Cotton. Eagle and Precinct 1 Commissioner Kevin Andrews voted nay.

Unbeknownst to Massingill, Cotton, and Wilson, Eagle sent a letter to the UTGCD ahead of its November meeting asking the board to disregard the nomination and to wait on making a decision until a new commissioner for Precinct 2, Nannette Samuelson, was seated in January.

That move angered the three elected officials as well as others in the community who favored Massey for the seat.

At the November UTGCD board meeting, a motion was made and seconded to delay the decision until January, but it failed in a 4-3 vote that was one vote shy of the five-vote requirement.

A vote was taken at that time to appoint Massey but that, too, failed in a 4-3 vote. Those voting nay were Jarrod Reynolds of Hood County and Parker County’s Watts and Shannon Nave.

In December, Reynolds as well as Brent Wilson of Wise County were absent from the board meeting. That delayed the decision again, moving it into January.

Samuelson was sworn in on Jan. 1.

Eagle requested a special meeting of the Commissioners Court for Jan. 6 to “discuss and take appropriate action” on a recommendation for the vacated UTGCD post. At that meeting, Massingill, who had consulted with an attorney for the Texas Association of Counties, raised concerns about the legality of voting on a second recommendation when the previous one had not been rescinded.

When others on the court appeared uncomfortable with proceeding, Eagle suggested scheduling another meeting for Jan. 9 during which a vote could be taken to rescind the Massey nomination.

At the Jan. 9 meeting, the votes of Eagle, Samuelson, and Andrews overpowered the votes of Massingill and Wilson. The Massey nomination was rescinded and Lusk, who has written numerous peer reviewed articles related to the property management of private lakes and ponds, is publisher of Pond Boss Magazine, and is on the advisory committee for Texas A&M’s newly formed Range, Wildlife, and Fisheries Department, became the nominee.

UTGCD board members were notified of the new recommendation. 

WRONG IMPRESSION?

On Friday morning after the meeting, the HCN contacted Massingill and read to him a transcribed portion of Eagle’s remarks to the board.

Eagle said that on Jan. 9, “the county Commissioners Court met again to discuss a recommendation. And the January 9 recommendation for Mike Massey was rescinded during the Commissioners Court — and that was at the behest of the (county) judge. The judge wanted to have that prior recommendation rescinded, so that was made part of the issue. And so rescinded means to cancel, take back, take away, remove. So, in place of Mike Massey being the recommendation, the new Commissioners Court that took office on January the first is now recommending Mr. Bob Lusk to be Hood County's representative to fill the position left open by Mr. Richard English’s departure.”

In Massingill’s view, Eagle’s statement did not accurately reflect what had transpired. He reiterated that he had recommended a vote to rescind the Massey nomination only because Eagle was insistent on a new vote and he, Massingill, wanted to make sure that it was done legally.

“I was never in favor of this,” he said of switching nominations. “I was never in favor of rescinding Mike Massey’s recommendation. I felt that it should stand.”

He noted that while Lusk appears to be knowledgeable about surface water, it is very different from groundwater. Massingill also stated that he intends to address the board when he attends its meeting later this month.

Former chamber president and CEO Mike Scott said that he intends to do so as well. Scott is a leader of Hood County Forward, a recently formed group that sent a letter to the UTGCD board calling Eagle’s actions “beyond the pale” and asking that it disregard his efforts to overturn the previous vote by the Commissioners Court.

Scott attended last week’s board meeting and, like Eagle, addressed the panel.

“I apologize to you guys that you’re caught up in Hood County politics,” he told the group. “Because I’m also caught up and it’s not a lot of fun.”