Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley will exit office in 2022 after 26 years.
He sat down virtually with Fort Worth Report journalist Rachel Behrndt to discuss his career in county government, what he hopes for the future of the Tarrant County Commissioners Court and what he plans to do post-retirement.
The interview has been altered for length and clarity.
Behrndt: I’d love to hear you discuss your time on the County Commissioners Court and discuss some highlights that stick out to you after 25 years in county leadership.
Whitley: I’ve been thinking back certainly since I made the decision not to run. I remember my first year as commissioner and the first meeting I had was proposing this concept of suburban cities to have a downtown. That was what became Southlake Town Center. It was one of the first times that that was done, and people have tried to duplicate that all over the country. It is a tremendous success.
Since then, a lot of my focus over the 25 years, has been transportation. In Tarrant County, we have spent over $20 billion on transportation in that 25 years. Highway 360, finally, maybe not at the end of my term, but shortly thereafter, will be finished. I’m very, very proud of that accomplishment.
Tarrant County has continued to be able to keep our tax rate low. Our tax rate is probably over 20% lower today than when I came on board.
The part that is not as frequently seen, but is just as important, if not more important to me, are some of the things that we’ve done in the way of human services. We began work and opened very shortly what is called Santa Fe Youth Services. Most recently is our mental health diversion center, which we approved at the very end of ‘21 and is now in progress.
Behrndt: You mentioned in your statement when you were announcing that you wouldn’t be seeking re-election that you’ve helped make Tarrant County collaborative and innovative. I’m wondering how you feel you contributed to that and if that’s something that you hope carries on in the future.
Whitley: People have told me and advised me to listen before I voice my opinion or my thoughts. Every leader should do that. Because as a leader, if you hop out there immediately and tell people what you think, then it’s going to be a little intimidating for someone to express a thought other than that back to you.
We county officials need to work together. I’d say it’s never been tested more than the last couple of years with COVID. Even though I may have had the power to do certain things, before I would issue an order, I’ve always preferred to have calls and conferences with city managers and city councils along with school boards and superintendents.
That’s why I have such a strong support of local control. Someone needs to be able to, in a disaster or emergency, call the shots. Not a dictator, but someone who will hopefully with counsel and listening, make a decision that they think is appropriate at that point in time.
Behrndt: There have been plenty of examples in your career where you criticized or spoke out against officials of your same party at a higher level of office. I’m wondering if you feel that will be part of your legacy or how you look back on the times when you’ve spoken out against members of your party.
Whitley: I represent all citizens. They all elected me. They may not have voted for me, but they got me. I believe that the folks closest to the people are the ones who need to make the decisions.I’m very disappointed in state leadership trying to centralize that power in Austin. They’re willing to say we’re gonna let somebody in Brownsville make a decision that’s going to impact people in Tarrant County. I just don’t agree with that.
I’ve never been bashful about saying something against something I feel is inappropriate or not the right decision. I don’t care who’s making them, I’ll call them out.
Behrndt: What do you hope to accomplish through the end of your term?
Whitley: There will always be that next thing to do, so that was one reason for me to make a decision not to run again. No one here predicted that we were going to be in this COVID mess for two years, and it’s done a great deal to delay everything. Tarrant County is going to eventually receive $408 million in ARPA funding and we’ve gonna try to prioritize early child development, which I have always been a big advocate of. Mental health, we’re doing that through the mental health diversion program right now. With homelessness, we need additional permanent supportive housing for people who may never be able to be independent but could with a little bit of help still have a good job. Finally, we want to support successful nonprofits that are using volunteers and other means to help people.
Behrndt: What do you hope for the future leadership that takes your place and your other commissioners’ place?
Whitley: That they realize that they’re there to serve all the people of Tarrant County. That they have respect for, and that they understand that people may come from different perspectives and different walks of life. Our Commissioners Court is always respectful, and I think that’s something that I’ve done my best to continue. I hope that continues to be the way we work in Tarrant County and we always show respect for people and their opinions.
Behrndt: What are you looking forward to most in retirement?
Whitley: First off, we have nine grandkids, but we’re not going to be babysitters… My goal is 30 minutes before the grandkids get picked up, start feeding them a lot of sugar so that when their parents get them, they get them and they’re ready to go. Just some tricks of the trade there.
But other than that, everybody asks me what I’m going to do and truly at this point in time I’m not sure. I know I’m not looking for a full-time job, but you know I may do some contract work or things along those lines.
I love county government. When I came into it, I really felt like I might only run for a couple of terms, and I had one time thought about Congress or thought about state offices. I fell so in love with the county government that I find myself 26 years later, and that’s where I’m going to retire.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter 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.