After 20 years of service to the city, including 10 years on the Fort Worth City Council, Dennis Shingleton announced earlier this year that he’s hanging up his boots after the May 1 election.
His fellow council members offered congratulations, gratitude and other reactions, like, “bit of jiving along the lines – ‘it’s about time, old guy,’ ” he said with a laugh.
Indeed, the time had come, Shingleton said, “for some new opinion, younger blood, newer look at things. I just knew in my heart that it was time.”
He remembers he was once the one with bold perspectives. Back in 2009, Shingleton was a sought-after city official.
He chaired the Fort Worth City Plan Commission, advising on all issues pertaining to public improvements. Then-Mayor Mike Moncrief subsequently persuaded Shingleton to oversee one of his signature initiatives, “Let’s Talk Fort Worth.” Moderated by Shingleton, the citizen response committee conducted public hearings across the city to gather citizens’ concerns and contentments.
Brimming with fresh outlooks and well-established connections within the city ranks, the retired army colonel won a City Council seat in 2011.
“We have good leadership, with the mayor and the council,” Shingleton said. “We didn’t always agree. But once we made a decision, as a group, we were all on the same wagon going the same direction.”
The group is breaking up soon, though. The 74-year-old council member’s decision to retire is part of a major shakeup inside the council chamber.
Mayor Betsy Price, who was elected the same year as Shingleton, is also leaving. Two council members – Brian Byrd and Ann Zadeh – are vacating their elected offices in pursuit of the mayor’s seat.
At least four new faces will take up new roles in the nine-member council.
The next city council has the tall task of steering the 13th-largest city in the country toward a constructive recovery following the economic and health turmoil of the 2020 pandemic.
It’s possible no incumbents will remain on the council, which alarms Shingleton.
“Everybody in the council gets elected every two years. That’s just stupid,” Shingleton said. “It doesn’t lend itself to any sort of continuum, to any sort of historic knowledge left.”
The District 7 councilman said a better option would be to elect half the council every two years, and the others serve staggered longer terms.
The city council has previously contemplated increasing the length of terms and introducing staggered terms so that all council seats weren’t at risk during the same election. An advisory committee was set up in 2015 to review and propose amendments to the city charter.
However, the recommendations put forth did not materialize. In a special election held in 2016, voters rejected the proposition to increase councilmember’s term length from two years to three years.
Council member Jungus Jordan, the longest-serving member in the current council, said he’s seeking re-election to share his knowledge with the newly elected officials.
“My talents can be better used as the dean of the council in being able to work with any potential new council members or mayor,” Jordan said. “They could go through some uncharted waters. So, I felt continuity was probably more important.”
The District 6 representative is serving his eighth term in the city council. Jordan has been in the council for 16 years, the longest in the history of District 6.
Jordan said that over the course of his term at the council he encountered more unanimity on issues than division. He saw many more 9-0 decisions than 5-4 votes.
Jordan worries newcomers in the lineup could destabilize the equilibrium and cause unwarranted clashes inside the council and the city as a whole.
“That’s been important to me – because we’re a small town, we treat each other with respect and dignity. People call it different things. I call it the golden rule,” Jordan said. “But, as you grow, there’s going to be forces that attempt to change the culture” and create an impersonal, unproductive big-city feeling.
The population of Fort Worth increased by more than 22% in the past decade, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Fort Worth is nearing 1 million people.
With such rapid growth, a change in the city’s political sphere is imminent, said Rebecca Deen, chairperson of the department of political science at UT-Arlington.
“Size usually means diversity,” Deen said. “And, it usually means power struggles, and it usually means that groups who may haven’t had a share of the pie are clamoring for that.”
Two challengers are vying for council member Jordan’s seat. While 10 candidates are fighting to represent District 6. On average, about seven candidates, including incumbents, filed to run for each of the city council positions at this year’s election, making it one of the most hotly contested races of recent years.
“It’s possible that because there are more unexpected people running, so the non-habitual voter, the person who rarely votes in a municipal election, might be paying more attention to it,” Deen said.
Various community groups are putting together campaigns across the city to bring the non-habitual and disenfranchised voters to the polls. United Fort Worth, a multiracial community advocacy organization, campaigned against the “old guards” in the City Council in the 2019 elections. The group’s leaders feel their mission remains unaccomplished.
“Folks, because of their civic connections or their financial connections, have been able to have right, direct access to decision-makers, and direct access to policy-making,” said Daniel Rodriguez, co-founder of United Fort Worth. “And we believe that that’s wrong.”
United Fort Worth is not supporting any incumbents in the upcoming election. However, the group made a series of endorsements in various key races.
The group demands a “brand new council,” and has endorsed five candidates, all people of color on the ballot for district 2, 4, 6, 8 and the mayoral races. They will also be newcomers to the City Council, if elected.
“These folks who hold power and have proximity to decision-making have excluded voices,” Rodriguez said. “We can work much harder and get more results and vote them out than try to continue speaking to brick walls that don’t have any intention to be responsive to the needs of directly impacted communities.”
Volunteers of the group can be seen door-knocking, canvassing and holding voting registration drives mostly in the low-income neighborhoods of east Fort Worth. United Fort Worth expects to continue its efforts till the May 1 elections.
Rodriguez said Fort Worth has matured into a city that’s big enough to welcome and tend to the needs of all the diverse groups.
According to population estimates, about 35% of people in Fort Worth identify as Hispanic; 19% Black and 5% Asian. Whites account for 39% of the total.
That diversity, however, has not been fully reflected in City Hall.
The City of Fort Worth is one of the largest employers in Tarrant County with 7,664 positions, according to 2020 data. Eight department heads were Black and one Hispanic, out of 25 departments within the city structure.
Caucasians made up 52.9% of the total workforce at the city of Fort Worth. The numbers grew for the police department, where 64.7% were whites, and the fire department, where 79% were whites.
“It’s a system of exclusion of marginalization, of silencing voices of people who really want to have a seat at the table in things that have a direct impact on their quality of life, on their existence in their city,” Rodriguez said.
The current nine-member City Council, including the mayor, includes one Hispanic and two Black members. The composition also could soon change.
In the 2016 Special Election, Fort Worthians voted to increase the number of city districts from eight to 10. A council-appointed Redistricting Task Force recommends the city create districts that are approximately equal in size, have minority opportunity districts that reflect the diversity and contain communities of similar interest and socio-economic characteristics in single districts.
District lines were last redrawn 30 years ago following the 1990 census, when over 60% of Fort Worth’s population was white. There were a total of 447,619 people in the city then.
The Fort Worth existing council districts have, on average, more than 106,000 people, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data. Hispanics make up more than 50% of the population in Districts 2 and 9. Three other districts, situated in east and south Fort Worth, have minority-majority populations.
This year’s redistricting efforts, as stipulated by the amended city charter, will be based on new information from the U.S. Census 2020.
“We want to be sure that minorities are fairly represented or at least have the opportunity to be fairly represented on the city council,” assistant City Manager Fernando Costa while presenting the task force’s final report in January. “Of course, voters can vote for whoever they wish, irrespective of race and ethnicity. But we want to be sure that nothing in the drawing of council district boundaries creates an unfair situation for any population group.”
Residents participated in various task force meetings conducted late last year and January of this year. The city will provide training on redistricting software to interested residents who wish to give input in the process from April through September.
An independent contractor will propose the initial map in compliance with the approved criteria and inputs provided. Members of the new City Council elected after May 1 elections, however, have the final say on approval of district maps.
The city expects to receive the census numbers by July for the redistricting process to begin in August.
“Demographics are a very key factor in our deliberations,” said Lorraine Miller, chairperson of the redistricting task force.