In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth leaders, District 6 council member Jared Williams describes how he spent his first days in office responding to constituents’ complaints about egrets, a federally protected migratory bird whose nesting habitat includes Fort Worth. Williams also shares his ideas on policing, public comments and gambling facilities.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Jessica Priest: On the campaign, your key issues were jumpstarting the economy, improving neighborhood safety and promoting fair, transparent and representative government. Now that you’re on City Council, which one of these issues has risen to the top? Or has another issue not on this list become a priority for you?
Jared Williams: I think our priorities have pretty much stayed consistent. That’s our North Star and how we operate as an office. There certainly have been issues that have come up, that were not on their priority list, but still fit within the buckets, I would say. Things like the impacts of egrets and their migratory season on our neighborhoods. As an environmental scientist, I understand the importance of conservation and also that egrets had an impact certainly on individual neighbors’ pocketbooks. I think that ultimately naturally fell in our bucket of economy.
We’ve been laser focused on growing a stronger economy around neighborhoods. In District 6, we’ve been really laser focused on addressing issues around safety from the need for more neighborhood police officers to traffic control measures with high speed traffic all across District 6. And then we’ve been really focused, especially in our first 90 days, about ensuring that our office is responsive to the needs of our District 6 and Fort Worth residents. Constituent services is a huge priority for us. And even more than that, taking the issues and briefings and access to city staff that we have as an office into the District. We’ve had several town halls and listening circles around specific issues, really intentionally around that priority of like, “How do we break down the veil between city and the community and take our wealth of information and resources to address issues in the community with the community?” I guess it’s a “yes, and” answer to your question.
Priest: Tell me about what’s going on with egrets in District 6.
Williams: We have seen migratory patterns where egrets end up in various districts, but not as much and as prevalent as it is in District 6. Of course, egrets are federally protected. From the moment that they lay eggs and set up a nest, they are federally protected, and you can’t disturb their rookeries. This particular egret season has impacted particular neighborhoods in ways that are completely unusual. For example, one of our neighbors in District 6, she has over 250 birds nesting in a tree in her front yard, and it’s completely ruined the yard, ruined the roof, and the driveway. She’s an older woman, she’s on oxygen and really doesn’t have the financial means to repair her home from the impacts of the nesting. We’ve seen that issue with egret migratory season after season where neighbors on very small scales, like streets, have spent over a quarter of a million dollars in repairs. And not every neighborhood has access to that kind of resources to mitigate that kind of impact.
Our office, from the first week we were sworn in, we were setting up our office and fielding calls and checking emails and saw that that was a major concern in our district. We’re in the middle of the season, so we couldn’t really do much in mitigating and deterring the egrets because they had already nested, so our work was, “How do we support the neighbors with things that we can do like sweeping the streets two and three times a week to remove fecal matter, and also ensuring that we’re protecting our stormwater quality?” We’ve been doing things like that, and we’re working to connect that lady with resources from nonprofits in the community that can help make some repairs on her home.
We’ve had several meetings with city staff, and we’ve laid forward a plan that helps alleviate this ongoing issue. It’s a three-point plan. The first piece of it is education, the second is deterrence, and third is conservation. It’s this idea of, “How can we be proactive before the egrets are here to work with our neighbors to help spot the egrets and prepare for the egrets?” Doing things like tree trimming and working with neighbors to understand what a scout bird looks like. Those scout birds are the first bird that you see before the egrets come to nest, so that the education piece is critical to help educate the community and then spot the birds so that we can then deter them and also, in some ways, capture them and take them to more suitable habitats like the Fort Worth Nature Center, habitats around Benbrook Lake, etc. That’s really what we’re working on. It’s an operational policy and our hope is to have it done by November. There should be a report to council, another report that will lay out that plan. But the idea is to reduce the impacts on our neighbors, but also to honor the fact that these birds are fairly protected and the benefits that conservation efforts have on our city as a whole.
I’m excited about the prospect of being able to solve this issue. We worked really hard and talked to lots of neighbors. We have in the listening circle with over 75 to 100 folks participate in some form or another and it was recorded and streamed online. And we got a lot of important feedback in there that helped inform the plan that we then put forward with city staff. That’s where we’ve been, where we are, and hopefully where we’re trying to go.
Priest: Your background informs how you approach this issue, so could you tell our listeners about your educational background?
Williams: I went to Fort Valley State University after graduating from North Crowley High School. And at Fort Valley, I studied plant science and biotechnology. My emphasis was really in the College of Agriculture, studying food crops, like switchgrass and alfalfa and looking at things like biomass and productivity in plants, which is directly correlated with ecosystem services like removing carbon out of the atmosphere.
From there, I went to TCU and got my master’s in environmental science. That was where I really took what I learned at Fort Valley State and focused on urban green infrastructure and really tackling questions of, “How do we work with communities to reinvigorate marginalized green spaces that had once been a part of the Fort Worth prairie, but are now Bermuda grass expanses?” I know folks in Texas love their Bermuda grass. I’m not saying get rid of it, but the science shows us that Bermuda grass is one of the cosmopolitan weeds of the world and is rapidly displacing the Fort Worth prairie. The Fort Worth prairie is a micro ecosystem of a larger Great Plains, which is one of the most productive ecosystems in the entire world. And when we talk about productivity, we talk about the ability to remove carbon out of the atmosphere … and that’s not the only service that provides. It helps cool our urban environments. … It helps clean our storm water. … it helps us with things like flash flooding …
I got to work in the community in East Fort Worth around O.D. Wyatt (High School) to help address some issues around stormwater quality by using green infrastructure with that community. Then, I went to University of North Texas to study environmental science with emphasis on science education. That’s where I got my doctorate. My PhD work was focused around American lawn addictions and our addictions as everyday residents to the ideal, perfect manicured law. One of the things we found in that study is that our lawns are requiring intensive resources, things like water and fertilizer …
Priest: As a longtime resident of District 6, did you know when you ran that egrets would be a thing people would call you about?
Williams: Absolutely not, but it brought me full circle. It reminded me of my purpose on City Council and also that I can bring my environmental science pedigree into this work as well. It was really cool to be able to work on a conservation issue in my first week.
Priest: Moving on to something else you said was a priority – safety. When I watched one of the Crime Control and Prevention District meetings, you asked staff to show you where some of the community policing programs were located in the city. Were you concerned there weren’t any in your district? What were you able to find out?
Williams: The intention behind that question was as a council member to have a basic understanding and inventory about where these dollars were being implemented, so then I can do the accountability thing of like, “What’s the impact of those dollars on what communities and are the opportunities for us to have more impact in Southwest Fort Worth?” knowing that we’re seeing a spike in crime, particularly with young folks between the ages of 16 and 24. For me, that’s of particular interest because, frankly, our children are our future. I think that community programs are an important piece in helping our kids in Southwest Fort Worth not only have fun, but in safe spaces so they can grow and thrive and to be connected to their dreams right here in Fort Worth. …
That line of questioning landed into one of the plans that we’re working on called, “The Homegrown Plan,” which is really a plan that’s designed to grow our next generation of first responders and public health professionals by creating a career pathway for high schoolers in Crowley ISD and Fort Worth ISD that intentionally prepares them for a career in fire, police, public health, and EMS. …
The idea of this plan would be for them to go through this program in high school and partner with several programs that we already have that are funded through the CCPD like the cadet program and the Explorers program, but then once they graduate high school, our goal is for them to be able to go to TCC free of charge. And then if they choose to finish their four-year degree to also do that here locally at no cost to them. …
The goal of this plan will be to incentivize them to work right here in Fort Worth where they grew up. It’s our way of investing into our next generation of public servants. And we know that that has a positive impact not only on ensuring a sustainable pipeline for talent, it also helps to diversify our next generation of public servants. And we know the benefits of diversity.
Priest: One of your other priorities was promoting fair, transparent and representative government. This question kind of relates to that. Council passed a resolution that you and two other council members voted against. Part of that resolution said that members of the public who signed up to speak on an item that was pulled from the agenda wouldn’t be called upon, that they could instead speak at the end of the meeting if they signed up in time. Do you know whether the city has changed that deadline to sign up and if it’s going to be calling people to let them know, “Hey, this item was pulled, so if you want to speak, you should sign up?”
Williams: As of now, I don’t know that, and those are the same questions that I had. I think those are very important questions. It wasn’t too long ago that I wasn’t elected. I remember the amount of anxiety and the amount of courage sometimes that it would take to sign up to speak right in front of council. And then also, it wasn’t too long ago that I remembered how busy life was for me like council aside. … I think it’s important that when we’re creating rules as a city that we understand the everyday lived experiences of folks. … I think that it’s important and incumbent on us as a city that when we remove an agenda item, sometimes the day of or right before the council meeting, that we’re creating another process by which we can still receive that input. We’re continuing most likely if we pull it off the agenda and so that feedback is still relevant to us…
Priest: That came up because a proposed no cruising ordinance in the West 7th Entertainment District was pulled from the agenda because you and others had raised questions about it. Why did you speak out on that proposal when it technically isn’t in your district?
Williams: Yes, I was elected to represent District 6, but my governing oversight is the city of Fort Worth, and I share that responsibility with my colleagues. … It would be great if there were entertainment districts all across the city, but when we look at the district’s entertainment districts that we do have, all of our residents and visitors from all across the country and world go to those entertainment districts. And so essentially, the policies that we make that affect those entertainment districts ultimately affect the city and also the folks that do business with as a city. I think it’s incumbent on all of us, as a council, to ensure that we’re creating policies that are comprehensive and intentional, not only for entertainment districts that are, but entertainment districts that are to come. …
Priest: Speaking of addressing things comprehensively, you talked in the most recent City Council workshop about wanting to look at game rooms comprehensively? Is there a game room proposed in District 6? Why did you raise that issue?
Williams: What we were talking about was gambling facilities versus gaming rooms, which are two totally different designations of land uses. They sometimes get used interchangeably, but in the ordinances they aren’t the same. We were talking specifically about gambling facilities, which in District 6 was particularly important because in the spring there was proposed a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, BYOB gambling poker room that was recommended by staff and voted unanimously for recommendation of approval to the council in a neighborhood residential commercial commercial shopping center. Well over 700 residents signed a petition and many of those residents came to City Council meetings and contacted their representatives on City Council to talk about two things. One was that they didn’t believe that 24 hours, seven-day-a-week, BYOB poker rooms should be zoned near an apartment complex or schools in the middle of a neighborhood. That was the first point. The second point was they didn’t believe that the conditional use permitting process should be used as a catch all to circumvent policy discussions, such as the future of gambling facilities in the city of Fort Worth.
And so the conversation that we had recently as a council was a continuation of that conversation. What I was really adamant about was that the conditional use permit is really a catch-all tool that allows for each council member to decide yes or no on a particular special use. But when we talk about gambling facilities, I think it’s important that we collaborate as a council to say, “Where are the areas that make sense in our comprehensive land use plan for gambling facilities to be designated across the city?”
I think we’re a little ahead of the of the state Legislature because they haven’t decided on the legality not only of poker rooms, but also casinos and so there’s also that element that was at play of like, “What legally can we do to create a comprehensive plan that creates clear guidance for gambling facilities so that when business owners who are wanting to start a gambling/poker room here in Fort Worth, that they know the process and they know where the designation is across the city where they get establish that?” With a conditional use permit, there’s no guidance like that, so it’s kind of haphazard and it could potentially lead to an inconsistent application of that tool, which then leads to inconsistent land use across the city. That’s what I’m fighting to try to avoid…
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.