A nearly empty room heard the Fort Worth City Council devolve into nearly three hours of bickering Tuesday, resulting in an impasse that forced the council to advance two new council maps for consideration instead of one.
When the council reached an impasse between two proposed maps, multiple council members acknowledged a partisan rift that was forming between the two maps for consideration.
“Let’s be very clear, we’re discussing two maps: one by a more conservative side of the council and one by a more progressive side of the council,” District 9 council member Elizabeth Beck said. “We’re going to go out to the public and tell them to pick a side, and to date on this council we have all been so proud that we have not done that.”
The public meeting will take place at 6 p.m. Feb. 24 in the City Council conference room at City Hall, Room 2020, 200 Texas St. In the event of bad weather, City Manager Fernando Costa said the meeting will be held virtually. Speakers can register here ahead of the meeting. The meeting can be streamed virtually from the city’s website.
A week after the council came to a standstill during redistricting debates, it again failed to find consensus. In the end, the council ended in a place similar to where it began Feb. 15, with two maps created by council members Chris Nettles, a Democrat, and Cary Moon, a Republican.
“This is the first time that the council has been unable to reach a consensus since I joined in 2013,” District 5 council member Gyna Bivens said. “It gives the impression that we’re wavering in the wind.”
Nettles’ map, strongly supported by Beck, creates one new district in north Fort Worth and another district to the east. The new District 11 would have a Hispanic voting age population, or Hispanic residents over the age of 18, of nearly 53%, creating a second majority Hispanic district.
Moon’s map, loosely supported by District 7 council member Leonard Firestone, creates two new districts in north Fort Worth. It does not create a second district with a Hispanic majority. Instead it provides a “Hispanic opportunity district” in District 9, with a Hispanic voting age population of about 48%.
One map, created by Carlos Flores, was dropped from consideration. His version was similar to Map X, created by Pablo Calderon and approved by the redistricting task force that met over the course of two months, under the council’s direction, to choose a citizen-produced map for council to consider and work off.
The meeting started off contentious as Beck said she had no interest in discussing Flores’ map because the council didn’t have a chance to analyze the map before the meeting.
In his map, Flores strengthened District 2’s Hispanic voting age population to reach 67% and created a new Hispanic majority district district in southeast Fort Worth with a Hispanic voting age population of 56%.
“I feel like this is dishonest. It is not what we discussed here at council, and I’m quite frankly disappointed in this process,” Beck said. Beck is open to discussion, she said, but questioned why Flores wouldn’t accept Nettles’ map and what interests Flores was representing.
Flores, the only Latino member of the council, said he was trying to balance the interests of Hispanics around the city who have reached out to him to advocate for a Hispanic majority district in the southside of Fort Worth, something the maps from Nettles and Moon don’t provide.
“The Hispanic community at large seems to call me, all at once sometimes,” Flores said. “It’s not personal, I’m just here to do a job the best way I can.”
Mayor Mattie Parker supported Flores’ interest. The council has put in a lot of work into the redistricting process, she said, while reminding council members that they have sat in on only one public meeting.
“I want a Hispanic opportunity district, and I think it needs to be in the southside,” Parker said. “I’ve gotten no support for (Nettles’ map) from the Hispanic community.”
Beck advocated for clearly defining the council’s process going forward.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Beck said, falling back into her chair.
As the meeting progressed, the central conflict became whether the council should put forward one or two maps for consideration by the public. Parker came out early to advocate for taking both maps into the next stage of the process.
Parker said she was not comfortable casting the swing vote on this issue. Instead, the maps from Nettles and Moon will be presented to the public on Thursday.
“I spent quite a bit of time with Hispanic leaders last week and their desire for a strong southside Hispanic district, that is a priority for me,” Parker said. “I don’t want this to get lost in that conversation.”
Council members Bivens, Nettles, Beck and Williams, four of the five Democratic members of the council, continued to advocate hard for one map to be put forward so that the public sees the council as a united front.
Nettles compared the council’s indecision to resident Bob Willoughby, who consistently criticizes the transparency of the council at open meetings.
“If we have a problem with him coming up every week and saying the same thing over and over and we keep doing this?” Nettles said. “Then we are hypocrites.”
Moon and Firestone advocated for consideration of two maps, including Moon’s and further consideration by the council after receiving public input. Beck became frustrated when members of the council proposed continuing to draw out the process of choosing a final map.
“I feel like this council is being held hostage,” Beck said.
Eventually the council voted to advance two maps by a slim margin of five votes. After Thursday’s meeting, the council will schedule additional public meetings or return to the meeting room to hash out a final map.
Changes to process
To accommodate the legal analysis of changes made to the maps up for consideration at the Feb. 15 meeting, the council had to amend its process for drawing the final council map. The council is scheduled to make a final decision by March 29. After that deadline, the council will be on a time crunch to get the final map passed before candidates have to establish residency for the upcoming 2024 election.
In October 2021, the council passed a resolution to make the redistricting process more transparent. Tuesday, the council amended the resolution to roll back many of the transparency measures they previously approved.
Changes in the new resolution
- Changes made to the map will be public, but council members don’t have to provide a justification
- Public notice for map drawing sessions will have to be 72 hours before the scheduled meeting
- The council must hold one public comment meeting with the option to add additional meetings
As the council moved to approve the change to the resolution, Thomas Torlincasi, a frequent critic of the council, warned that changes to the council’s original resolution would be viewed harshly by advocates of a more transparent redistricting process.
“The task force, neighborhood associations and communities of interest spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours, following the rules and procedures that the council established,” Torlincasi said. “And yet again you’re tweaking it.”
The resolution changes were essential to making sure the council made the right decisions, according to Nettles. Critics of the council-led redistricting process said the actions the council has taken since the task force finished its work is a complete dismantling of the product of the task force and the changes point to a lack of purpose and leadership from council members.
“This process is happening on the fly,” Byrwec Ellison with Citizens for Independent Redistricting said.
Thursday meeting will be exclusively open for public comment and won’t include any map drawing. The council is only considering the maps created by Nettles and Moon, but the public can comment on any map that has come up throughout the redistricting process.
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.