Editor's note: This column was written in advance of the May 4 election for publication in the May 6-12 edition of the Fort Worth Business Press.
I already said it’s tough to get folks out to vote on a Saturday in May and this year’s turnout in early voting seemed to be setting me up as a seer.
The early voting numbers were way down despite the enormous importance of the May 4 election, particularly regarding the race in the Tarrant Regional Water District, where two board seats were up for grabs.
Timing is not the friend of a weekly newspaper and ours is printed on Thursday night – too early to include results from a Saturday election. The internet is our friend, though. We immediately report the election results on our website and in our daily morning and afternoon newsletters. Readers of our May 6-12 edition will find their paper full of good stories and useful information but, unfortunately, no election returns.
Not a day goes by without another negative revelation about the mismanagement of the Trinity River Vision project, aka Panther Island. The water board oversees the project and has been woefully inadequate in fulfilling its fiduciary responsibility of protecting taxpayer money.
The project was once projected to cost $300-plus million and now cost estimates exceed $1 billion with no ceiling in sight. Federal money that is needed to complete the project has not been forthcoming and prospects for getting it any time soon – if ever – do not look good.
The visual symbols of the sorry state of affairs surrounding Panther Island are three partially built bridges, particularly the one that is supposed to connect White Settlement Road to downtown Fort Worth. We are now told that, among other problems, the bridges are replete with design defects – at least some of which pose threats to public safety.
I guess if these “bridges to nowhere” are ever completed we will see warning signs as we approach: “Cross at your own risk.”
The public’s outrage over this project and the incompetence involved in it should be gargantuan. But, let’s face it, the gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands is not widespread.
The proof is in the pudding: tepid interest in an election that presented residents of the water district with the opportunity to elect two new members of the water board to join sitting members James Hill and Leah King in forming a new majority to take control of the board and fix the problems at the water district – not just the Panther Island mess but a whole range of issues stemming from the district’s pervasive lack of transparency and public accountability.
That’s where the malaise comes in. Instead of flocking to the polls as fast as they could get there, voters for some reason – at least during the early-voting period leading up to the election – responded with a collective yawn. Too busy to vote? Too distracted by other demands on their time? Or was the early voter turnout down because people just didn’t care?
The early predictions were that incumbent Marty Leonard would be re-elected and perhaps either Gary Moates or C.B. Team would sneak past incumbent Jim Lane.
The incumbents needed to be sent sailing down the Trinity. They have had their chance and they squandered it. As I write this two days before the election, I must admit that I can’t wait to see what happens.
There has been plenty of damage inflicted on reputations by the Panther Island debacle. Water board members, once admired, are the butt of jokes. Everybody is blaming everyone for the problems. The Texas Department of Transportation, the agency with direct responsibility for seeing that the bridges get built, cannot even come up with a completion date. The contractor says he is being asked to work with a design that is unsafe. A firm with a stellar record, Freese and Nichols, says it’s work designing the bridges was fine. The leaders of our city say, “We’ve done our part, put $14 million in the kitty for bridge construction, and do not know much more than anyone else about what is going on.”
These types of answers and running for cover undermine confidence in local government, local leaders, and local firms involved in the project. These folks might have perfectly valid reasons for being uninformed but perception is the problem here. No one in a position of responsibility, it appears, knows what’s going on or what to do about it.
Taxpayers don’t want excuses. They want answers. They want results.
The perception problem has plagued this project from the start, from the day Congresswoman Kay Granger’s son, J. D. Granger, was named to head up the River Vision project. He had no experience in the type of management needed for a project so vast and he has done nothing to build confidence from the low point where he started. And, qualified or not, J.D. Granger’s appointment to run a project so closely tied to his mother – she’s the project’s congressional sponsor and head cheerleader in Washington – just plain “looked bad.”
Taxpayers look to the city to take care of projects at home. They do not care about some bureaucratic chain of command with a state agency at the top. Bureaucracy only frustrates them. They feel helpless.
And feeling helpless causes malaise, which the dictionary describes as “a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness.” Whatever it is, it translates to a sense of discouragement and defeat, a loss of hope.
It’s also possible that the daily torrent of negative news, tweets and chatter, nationally and abroad, leaves folks just too overwhelmed to deal with a little water board election – even if the election isn’t little at all but gigantic.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller blames Attorney General William Barr for glossing over the details of his report on the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and the president’s potential obstruction of justice in trying to thwart the investigation. Barr blames Mueller for dumping the report in his lap, then criticizing the way he handled its release to Congress and the public. President Trump blames anyone in tweeting distance when things don’t go his way. Political activists on every side are energized by it all but for most folks it just causes more malaise.
In Fort Worth, we might just adopt an old song as our city anthem, with a slight change in the lyric: “Up the malaisey river …”
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at email@example.com