David vs Goliath

These are the comments I prepared and delivered to the HCUWCD Board of Directors during Monday night’s meeting. I believe this issue is an important enough one to all of us that I am sharing them here, in their entirety. I support the work of this board, appreciate the difficult and consequential decisions they make, and will continue to do so.

But the road between Canadian and Austin is a long one, and the interests of rural communities in the Texas Panhandle are easily outgunned by the far more powerful, monied interests that are only too well-represented when the Texas Legislature is in session.

It may be a battle of David and Goliath, but it is one we should always be willing and ready to engage in—with slingshot armed and in hand.

IN OVER TWO DECADES of covering Hemphill County’s Underground Water Conservation District board meetings, I have, on various occasions, been amused, educated, bored and frustrated. But on the whole, I’ve been downright proud of the thought, commitment and dedication to this county’s resources that this board has shown.

I’ve never been disappointed, as I was last month, when the board rejected its general manager’s recommendation to retain the services of legislative consultant Greg Ellis. I don’t know Ellis, and have no opinion of him, but I understand that General Manager Janet Guthrie was entrusted by the board with the responsibility of going to Austin and appraising three candidates for that job—an assignment that involved some time and expense on both hers and the district’s part.

I have not tracked any underground water-related legislation that has been filed during this legislative session, nor have I felt the need to, knowing that the water district board has always kept a close eye on issues that could pose a threat to its ability to guard our natural resources, and to defend our ability to manage them here at ground level.

Given that, I was shocked when a two-member majority of that board rebuked Guthrie’s recommendation in February, deciding instead to save the money that had already been budgeted for that purpose by not hiring a consultant at all.

I have consistently covered the water district’s budget and tax rate workshops, and have attended and reported the subsequent public hearings that were conducted. I have, almost without exception, been the only member of the public present.

In all of those years, I’ve never heard any taxpayer complain about the bare bones budget the board has always adopted, or protest its biennial expenditure of legislative consulting fees.

I am a member of the Texas Press Association Executive Board and Legislative Action Committee. Despite limited funds, we have always prioritized hiring legal consultants to serve as our watchdogs while the legislature is in session.

Given the time required to comb through proposed bills and amendments that might compromise either access to public information or government accountability, it is an expense we have never questioned, and one for which we’ve often been extremely thankful.

Having been involved in that process, I can also attest to the importance of having someone on the ground, representing ours and the public’s interests, establishing relationships with lawmakers, and advising us of bills that may require greater scrutiny or immediate response.

I encourage this board to reconsider its decision, and to engage the services of a legislative consultant who understands the priorities this district, and its taxpayers, place on protecting and preserving our natural resources, and on our ability to exert some local control over what happens to them.

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