"It's curious why state legislators would vote in favor of legislation, then waste taxpayer funds to work and have it overturned at the federal level"
By Elliott Blackburn
Federal authorities may unravel a tiny Panhandle government with far-reaching powers.
The U.S. Department of Justice blocked changes to Texas law that last fall helped create the board of the Roberts County Fresh Water Supply District, a body dominated by employees of Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens.
Losing the district's authority could complicate Pickens' most visible means so far of running pipeline and power line infrastructure across the state.
Jay Rosser, spokesman for Pickens' Mesa Water, said the decision as Mesa officials understood it did little to change the board or plans to move massive water and wind energy resources out of the Panhandle and into the Metroplex. State officials were not sure what, if any, consequence the federal decision would force on the board and the water district.
"At this point we can't talk about anything because we haven't seen it," state attorney general spokesman Tom Kelley said.
A decision dated Thursday appears to make three of the board's five supervisors, including its president, ineligible to serve.
The freshwater supply district gave Pickens access to low-interest bonds and to eminent domain, a government's power to compel the sale of private property for public use. Mesa Water and Mesa Power, instruments of Pickens' push to build one of the largest wind farms in the world, joined with the district to pursue right of way between the remote resources and customers in Dallas and Fort Worth.
Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, authored changes overwhelmingly approved last session in the House and Senate allowing a property owner in a freshwater district to serve on the board. Previous law required board supervisors be registered, resident voters.
The change allowed three Pickens employees to serve as supervisors of a Roberts County Fresh Water Supply District created over land wholly owned by Pickens. Only two residents on the property voted in a November election to create the district - both work for Pickens.
The Civil Rights Division of the justice department wrote in a letter dated Aug. 21 that Texas failed to prove Creighton's changes did not harm minority voting rights. A department objection, which carries the same weight as an injunction from a federal court, made a law that took effect nearly a year ago unenforceable.
Officials were still studying what the decision meant. The law changing the supervisor requirements no longer applied, secretary of state spokesman Scott Haywood said. But it was not yet clear how the DOJ's objection may affect the supervisors already serving.
The district could find new, eligible supervisors, Rosser said.
"That's certainly an option, and it would be a relatively easy fix," Rosser said. "The important thing is that it did nothing to challenge the creation or existence of that district."
Mesa could abandon the district proposal entirely. Summer filings with the state Public Utilities Commission suggest the company could consider a more traditional means of stringing its power lines.
"We have a number of other options available that we're pursuing," Rosser said, though he declined to answer where the district now fell among them.
Residents around the Panhandle and in the proposed path of the pipeline greeted plans over the last year with a mix of anger and awe. Many seemed stunned that such a small district could boast such broad reach.
Landowners who attended meetings held by the district and later by Sens. Robert Duncan and Kel Seliger were wary of the eminent domain powers, authority Mesa officials have played down, and frustrated that there seemed no opportunity to tie into the power lines.
The district no longer commands the interest in Roberts County coffee shops that it once did, County Judge Vernon Cook said. Cook opposed the water district but supports Pickens' plans to develop wind energy through the area.
"I'm not at all surprised," Cook said of the federal decision. "We'll have to look at the ruling and fine print on the thing and see what the impact's going to be."
Duncan, a Lubbock Republican, has been critical of the district in public meetings but had no comment Friday.
"It's curious why state legislators would vote in favor of legislation, then waste taxpayer funds to work and have it overturned at the federal level," Rosser said.
© 2008 The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal:lubbockonline.com
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