Richard Connor: Problems persist but progress yields hope for solutions

Trinity River Vision

As autumn fades into winter and 2019 winds down, we look toward the coming year with concern about the challenges facing our city and our country. There’s not much we can do here in Fort Worth about the nation’s turmoil while Congress and the president wrangle over impeachment and neglect the task of governing.

But locally, we are clearly making progress on two of our most vexing problems: racial mistrust and the debacle known as Panther Island.

Fort Worth’s racial tensions reached a fever pitch after the Oct. 12 death of Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman shot to death in her own home by a white police officer. The officer resigned from the police force and has been charged with murder, but citizens who have long believed that African-Americans are not treated fairly by the city’s police remain angry and continue to demand change and accountability.

And the city is responding – perhaps not as rapidly and dramatically as some would like but responding nonetheless, openly and in a meaningful way.

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At the direction of Mayor Betsy Price, City Manager David Cooke has empaneled a group of experts to conduct a top-to-bottom evaluation of the police department, its policies, its training methods, its relationships with the community. And in a move not directly related to the shooting but certainly timely with race so much on our minds, the city has hired Christina Brooks as director of its new Diversity and Inclusion Department. The position resulted from a recommendation by the city’s Race and Culture Task Force.

The city manager says Brooks has the credentials needed to address the racial and cultural challenges we face.

“She is a results-driven diversity and inclusion professional with 20 years of experience working with underrepresented populations in public, private, local, national and international settings,” Cooke said. “Her years of experience in organizational inclusion policy and process change will prove to be extremely valuable as we move forward with our enhanced diversity and inclusion efforts.”

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. Improving relations between police and the minority community is crucial and urgent. But so is the overriding need for diversity and inclusion, not just in law enforcement and government but also in business and civic life. The actions taken by the city in recent weeks represent a giant step in the right direction but all of us need to do our part.

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Now, what to say about Panther Island? The shockingly mismanaged, underfunded flood control/recreation/economic development project has become synonymous with the word “boondoggle.” Its price tag at the moment is $1.17 billion and there is no reason to believe the cost won’t continue to rise. It cannot be completed without federal money that has been promised but not delivered. Mayor Price’s recent forays to Washington seemed to have improved the prospects for shaking the money loose but there are no guarantees.

That said, the troubled project surely will benefit from the Trinity River Vision Authority’s decision to implement a key recommendation of a Dallas consulting firm’s review of Panther Island by hiring a former Army Corps of Engineers executive, Mark Mazzanti, as program coordinator. The Corps is the federal agency charged with overseeing the flood control aspect of the project; having someone in charge who is familiar with the agency and its requirements will not only help put Panther Island back on track, it could help persuade skeptical officials that the project should get the federal money it so desperately needs.

Price deserves praise for her bold leadership on both of these all-important issues. She stepped up months ago when Panther Island seemed doomed and demanded the independent review that led to the hiring of Mazzanti and other organizational changes that can only help advance the project. And she stepped up again after the tragic death of Atatiana Jefferson, accepting responsibility on behalf the city and pledging accountability and reform in the police department. Cooke, too, has been an important contributor, both as city manager and as a member of the Trinity River Vision Authority board, which has day-to-day management responsibility for Panther Island under the supervision of the Tarrant Regional Water District.

And while we’re handing out kudos, let’s not forget the brave and tireless efforts of water board members James Hill and Leah King, who have toiled in the role of loyal opposition on the five-member board, demanding more transparency and accountability from an agency that has long been hostile to both concepts.

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It’s far too soon to declare victory on either race or Panther Island. There remains much to do, actual bridges to build and many figurative bridges to cross. But the recent progress is encouraging and as we feast on Thanksgiving leftovers and anticipate the joy of Christmas and the excitement of a new year, there is hope. And when the alternative is failure, hope means everything.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at