There’s a step in the right direction and then there’s, well, a half-step in the right direction.
The half-step is where we are with official approval of an independent review of the Trinity River Vision project, aka Panther Island. Now a competent firm needs to scour records and procedures to find out how our money has been spent.
The plan to turn the Fort Worth riverfront into a mecca of shopping and entertainment venues was conceived many years ago as a flood control project that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said was needed to update a badly outdated levee system. But that relatively modest idea quickly gave way to an ambitious economic development scheme – that’s where the vision part comes in – and the projected cost has steadily escalated from $360 million in the early 2000s to today’s eye-popping $1.16 billion.
And there are no federal funds coming our way to complete it. The city of Fort Worth under Mayor Betsy Price’s bold leadership demanded the project review after a visit to Washington, D.C., where officials briefed her on Panther Island’s bleak prospects for securing federal money. The city has some weight to throw around on this issue as a major fiscal player in the project. Fort Worth has committed more than $26 million to the cost and is also the number one contributor to a special taxing district that generates money for Panther Island.
The project is managed by the Trinity River Vision Authority, an entity created by and answerable to the Tarrant Regional Water District, which because the project has been dubbed flood control has overall responsibility for its execution – and which for all practical purposes answers to no one.
But water district officials want to extend the life of the taxing district and use revenue from it to pay off a $250 million bond issue approved by water district voters last May. Price says Fort Worth will not support an extension until she and the city council are satisfied that Panther Island is in able and competent hands.
At the moment, able and competent are far down the list of words commonly used to describe Panther Island management.
The truth is, Panther Island is not being operated as a public works project at all but as a private fiefdom overseen by J.D. Granger, executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority and the son of Fort Worth Congresswoman Kay Granger. River Vision honchos believe Kay Granger has the clout to corral the federal money needed to finish the project but even with her new post as top Republican on the powerful House Appropriations Committee she does not have full support of the Texas delegation let alone the entire Congress.
Behind her back, members from Texas are sending constituents information that raises serious questions about the project and casts doubt on its future. Worse, they are laughing about the ridiculousness of a plan so grandiose and so dependent on federal funds being run by the son of a member of Congress.
A true step in the right direction would be an audit of the water district, an agency run with an iron fist by general manager Jim Oliver under the supervision of an elected board of directors whose members sometimes act as if they work for Oliver rather than the other way around. Oliver is J. D. Granger’s boss but appears to give him wide leeway in making decisions about Panther Island.
Oliver is a master at obfuscation and outright arrogance. Even when board members ask for his salary information he tells them to file a freedom of information request.
Oliver and the three longest-serving members of the five-member water board are hopelessly oblivious to the need for accountability and transparency. They’ve never shown an ounce of concern about public discomfort with the J.D.-Kay Granger situation or other examples of nepotism in their midst. When J.D. Granger embarked on a relationship with an employee that led to plans for marriage, in fact, Oliver simply changed the employee’s job description to create the illusion that she was no longer in J.D.’s chain of command.
Did I say something about obfuscation and arrogance?
The majority members of the water board have stubbornly refused to acknowledge problems at the water district or concede that changes are needed. Two members elected more recently sometimes raise questions and oppose board decisions but are consistently overrun by the majority.
This spring there will be an election for the water board. The election of just one more dissident or at least open-minded board member could create a new majority that might put the board, the water district, the TRVA and the Panther Island project on a new path. At the very least a fresh outlook by members not wedded to the past and mired in the rut of unaccountability could shine some much needed light into the dark corners of the water district.
The old guard has tightened its grip on power and prevailed in past elections by fielding establishment-friendly candidates and burying anyone audacious enough to challenge the status quo with an avalanche of money and big-name endorsements. Only the voters can prevent that from happening again.
Forward-looking, qualified candidates with the wherewithal to take on the powers that be need to step up. Then, each and every voter needs to conscientiously examine the candidates and the issues and cast an informed, intelligent vote.
The best way to change the direction of Panther Island and the water district is for the district’s bosses, the taxpayers, to exercise their right to decide at the ballot box.
The other way to force transparency and good governance is by completing the half-step and demanding a thorough audit of the water board and all the water district’s operations, not just the River Vision debacle.
Were that to happen we would not just have a half-step in the right direction. We’d have a Texas two-step and the fiddler would change his tune.
Sweet music for Fort Worth taxpayers.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org