By most measures, the Fort Worth City Council changed more dramatically with the May 2021 elections than it had in decades.
Sworn into office June 15, 2021: District 9’s Elizabeth Beck, District 3’s Michael Crain, District 8’s Chris Nettles, District 7’s Leonard Firestone, District 6’s Jared Willaims and Mayor Mattie Parker. The first-time elected officials form the youngest and most diverse council in the city’s history.
The voters “brought in a pretty much brand new council,” Parker said. “That’s a lot of people getting acclimated to the office, getting to know each other as an entire body and then trying to move forward together.”
In that year, the City Council spent over 181 hours presiding over public meetings, passed $560 million in bond projects and formed 10 new council districts that will shape the city for the next decade.
Parker said it’s hard to believe it’s been a year since she was sworn into office. She touts these major accomplishments: a new Texas A&M campus being placed in downtown Fort Worth, better communication within City Hall, and the federal funding of over $400 million for the Central City Flood Project.
The Report has spent the past year chronicling the actions of the council as it shapes the city through a variety of budgets, bonds and meetings. In interviews with the six new council members, they discussed the major issues that have defined their tenure so far:
Addressing public safety concerns is a self-professed top priority of every council member. Despite this shared concern, the council is ideologically split when it comes to policing policy.
“When I got elected and immediately began attending funerals of teenagers with so much life ahead of them, that really weighed on me,” Williams said.
Rising gun violence has confronted council members throughout their first year. The violence has been especially devastating in District 8, which saw double the number of homicides – nine – compared with other districts from January through March this year.
“We can’t have safe neighborhoods if the community doesn’t trust the police,” Nettles said.
Nettles has been a frequent critic of the Fort Worth Police Departments funding proposals for new technology. Along with council members Williams and Beck, Nettles voted against a contract providing a military style vehicle to the Fort Worth Police department.
It’s important to challenge the police department with good questions, Nettles said. The police department should be fully funded and fully represented.
“At the same time, I want that equipment not to hinder community policing,” Nettles said. “I stand by that vote, and I would vote the same way again. I don’t believe in militarizing our police department.”
Conversations about policing have become increasingly politicized, Kirby Gaherty, a program manager for Justice Initiatives at the National League of Cities, said. Still, cities can work toward establishing interventions and solutions to prevent violence in urban communities.
“One thing that we’ve suggested is to create a more comprehensive community safety or violence prevention plan that includes various types of interventions and solutions, that really look at violence as a public health issue, but also look at safety as broader than just the police.”
Cities should take a holistic approach to addressing community violence through engaging with members of the public, embracing robust accountability of police departments and preventing community stressors like domestic violence and health inequities.
Other council members have a record of endorsing Fort Worth police’s request for funding and equipment. Fort Worth Police Chief Neil Noakes has a plan in place to address community violence, Parker said.
“It’s up to me as mayor to align with that plan and ask, ‘What do you need to get it done?’ ” Parker said.
Chief Noakes delivered that plan to the Fort Worth City Council in February. The plan revealed a clear spike in violent crime, disproportionately impacting Fort Worth’s Black residents. More officers and community engagement is the answer, Noakes said.
Council members Williams and Nettles criticized the plan for its lack of specifics.
“We can’t be broad when it comes to resolutions, when we have specific issues,” Nettles said at the February work session. “So I think we need to take the nail, put it into the coffin and drill until it’s over. This issue is bigger than just today.”
Parker plans to support Noakes’ request for more officers during the upcoming budget cycle. The mayor called other council members’ decision to vote against the allocation of a Bearcat vehicle a ‘political decision.’
Nettles plans to move forward on plans for a civilian review board for police oversight. The city established the office of police oversight monitor in 2020, but talks for a civilian oversight board have stalled. Council members disagree on the potential scope of the 15-person board’s powers.
Cities can face a challenge establishing a board with enough authority to truly make a difference, Gaherty said.
“It can be really ineffective if it’s not well thought out,” Gaherty said. “It can’t just be some group that’s thrown together to talk through an incident, but (not) really have some sort of investigative or subpoena power and have the ability to make recommendations related to policing issues.”
The council could vote to establish the board by fall 2022.
Business owners may work in Fort Worth, but sometimes the city isn’t working for them, Crain said. The business infrastructure in Fort Worth has not always been inclusive enough for fledgling minority business owners.
“I don’t know if we’ve been ready to help all people… I hope the tone that we set with this City Council… and the mayor is that we are really open to all people and it really takes a diverse community to make the city better.”
The Entrepreneurship and Innovation Committee, chaired by Leonard Firestone, looks to make Fort Worth more hospitable to businesses. The first step is projecting the story of Fort Worth to other areas of the county.
“If we can do a better job to amplify Fort Worth regionally, nationally and internationally, people will have a better understanding of the business climate here,” Firestone said.
Firestone hopes to bolster Fort Worth’s external image in his second year by partnering with Visit Fort Worth, the city’s internal communications team, and Quinn PR.
Crain chairs the small business committee, an offshoot of the entrepreneurship and innovation committee. The committee aims to bolster Fort Worth business by improving business assistance centers across the city and investigating the barriers that slow a business from opening.
The city recently announced a plan to streamline its permitting process, without revealing any specific changes. The city hopes to reduce by 50% the number of incomplete and voided certificate of occupancy permit applications and reduce by 25% the number of zoning applications held up.
The city has also devoted federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for investing in local businesses. The city will use $4.8 million to establish the Fort Worth Techstars Physical Health Accelerator to mentor young entrepreneurs in the physical health industry. The city also utilized $3 million to create CDFI Friendly Fort Worth. The organization hopes to provide alternate streams of funding for minority and women owned businesses.
Incremental investments like these are useful, Jared Sloane, executive director of Accelerate DFW said, but transformative change will come from city leaders consistently advocating to expand credit, financing and workforce development.
“It’s really promising that those activities are happening,” Sloane said. “There needs to be more innovation in how we support risk taking… There’s an opportunity there for new funding mechanisms.”
Sloane suggests financing additional microloans at a local level and funding ways to identify business owners who are struggling and provide help. Also, through engaging with local universities, the city could form programs to help small businesses with skills like economic forecasting.
The council members are on the right tack, Sloane said. Council members Firestone and Crain and Nettles all own their own business. It can be relatively easy to obtain city permits to get a small business up and running. Often, there’s a lack of connectivity between departments and agencies that make obtaining permits difficult, Sloane added.
“Fort Worth has great people. What it lacks is a unified culture that really speaks to getting things done,” Sloane said.
The city’s commercial residential corridors are important areas of need, Williams said. The city’s economic development is working to improve the Altamesa and McCart corridor in southwest Fort Worth to help small businesses find success and remove blight from the neighborhood.
The city and council members are working to develop a neighborhood conservation plan bolstered with a budget to address neighborhoods in decline before they become depressed.
“We’re working to give our most historic and distressed neighborhoods a second life, ” Williams said.
As Fort Worth expands and contracts, city leaders and staff are left to grapple with the shifting tides of development. Uncontrolled growth in the north represents a cautionary tale for the rest of Fort Worth, Crain said.
“After watching what’s happened in the north part of Fort Worth and the absolute disaster that people have up there, we can’t do that,” Crain said. “We have to look holistically.”
When suburban sprawl goes unchecked, quality of life tends to dip. Property taxes on individuals get higher, it takes longer to navigate roads and the city can’t provide effective public safety services to its residents.
The problem is multifaceted, said Karen Vermaire Fox, president of the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth. The city has done a good job devoting resources from the most recent bond to build and improve roads, purchase open space and provide more city services in remote areas, Fox said. This strategy addresses sprawl after development has already occurred, though.
The city should be more proactive by collecting more impact fees from developers, create a more robust public transit system and encourage commercial development, Fox said.
What is an impact fee:
An impact fee is imposed by a local government on a new or proposed development project to pay for all or a portion of the costs of providing public services to the new development.
If the city fails to address sprawl through policy and zoning, Fort Worth risks getting stuck in a cycle of addressing the negative impacts of sprawl after it’s already occurred by shelling out additional funds for safer intersections and wider roads.
“That’s what happens when you let sprawl happen,” Fox said. “It costs us more money all the way around. It’s not an effective mechanism.”
Factoring the costs of transportation, Fort Worth has a higher cost of living as a percentage of income than Washington, D.C., and New York City, according to the Housing and Transportation index.
“That’s a problem, because the cost of housing is already going up, and we don’t have the transportation to support it,” Rachel Albright, public relations specialist with the Real Estate Council, said.
Firestone recently advocated for $40 million to go toward Bailey Boswell Road in northwest Fort Worth near Saginaw. The remote road has historically lacked access to city services.
“The pressure on infrastructure there is just so great. Anything we could do to accelerate the improvements, by way of dollars, is very beneficial,” Firestone said.
Firestone wants developers to prioritize a mixed neighborhood commercial approach to development. City leaders have to ask how developers plan to deliver grocery stores, gas stations, suitable roads and schools during the planning process.
“It’s a holistic approach, because that is within our long term interest,” Firestone said.
Managing growth presents a different challenge in the core of the city. Transportation, affordable housing and redevelopment are key issues impacting development inside of Loop 820.
“In District 9, as you’ve seen areas redeveloped, we’ve also seen the prices of homeownership and rentals increase,” Beck said. “We need to make sure that we’re filling that gap that we have missing — middle-priced housing.”
Better communication with residents is a top priority for Parker and other council members.
Parker debuted a new podcast, Williams held monthly listening circles and every council member participated in community events.
Those strategies are making an impact, Erika Ramos, president of SteerFW, said.
“I’ve seen a lot more visibility from this council,” Ramos said. “I see them show up in person. When you talk about making connections with people and getting to know who you represent, I think that’s one of the best ways to do it.”
The city of Fort Worth can be hard to navigate, Williams said. Through listening circles, he aims to connect concerned residents with staff that can address their problem. Past subjects include egrets, public safety and development of Chisholm Trail.
“I’ve been super proud of this listening circle and the impact it’s had on the decisions that we make as council members,” Williams said. “We really fought as a council to ensure that our residents can fully participate in democracy at the local level.”
Distributing city announcements and events to a larger group, rather than word of mouth would help the city market itself to young people and companies in the region better, Ramos said.
The city recently hired Reyne Telles to be the first city’s first chief communications officer. Telles will help the city encourage residents to communicate with their government and streamline communication about issues like elections, Crain said. The hiring was a result of three months of discussion, he added.
“I’m very excited because, looking at the bond and charter election, only 5% of people turned out to vote,” Crain said. “It’s abysmal, so I think we’re talking more about it.”
Making information more accessible online is important to engage residents, Ramos said.
Elected officials need to reach out to their constituents in different ways, Beck said. She’s learned throughout her first year that having multiple channels of communication like newsletters and in-person engagement is the best way to hear from constituents.
“I think understanding how different populations… and individual neighborhoods communicate, and making sure that we are coming to them, and not requiring that they come to us. I think that’s the mindset that we need to have.”
The new council members had a generational opportunity to shape the future of Fort Worth.
Not only does redistricting happen once every decade, council members were asked to add two new districts to Fort Worth’s council map, forever alternating the makeup of the city’s government.
Instead of completing map drawing amongst the council exclusively, the council reactivated the redistricting task force, which received maps from residents, and chose a final map to advance to the council for discussion.
Former District 2 council member Sal Espino, one of three Hispanics to serve on City Council, was chair of the task force.
“I do think that you will see more Hispanic candidates elected,” Espino said. “The map that was ultimately approved by the council was a classic example of a compromise and probably the best map that could be obtained under the circumstances.”
Council members made many changes to the task force’s final map before finally approving it. Chris Nettles, representing District 8, had the biggest impact on the final map.
“I’m grateful that the map that was selected was the map created by my office,” Nettles said.
Initially, Nettles planned to take a back seat on redistricting, he said. When other council members started producing maps that did not create the second majority Hispanic district advocates were asking for, he started drawing maps, too, Nettles said.
Nettles’ office produced six maps in February. The final map created a new district with a Hispanic majority and another in the north. Mayor Parker calls that a compromise.
“We have no way of determining who gets elected or who runs for office,” Parker said. “But I think we drew the map in a way that gives fairness and opportunity to a lot of different constituencies.”
Espino, who looks forward to seeing two Hispanic council members elected, is critical of the city’s redistricting process.
“I wish the city had gone forward with an independent redistricting commission,” Espino said. “To continue moving forward, the city needs to make sure every citizen feels they have a voice in the city.”
District 9 was fundamentally changed by the new map, council member Beck said. Many of the Hispanic neighborhoods in South Fort Worth have been carved into the new District 11.
By losing those neighborhoods, she gained others like Wedgwood and the Altamesa-McCart corridor, formerly a part of District 6.
“Leaders lead, and you have to be willing to take the bullets,” Beck said. “I showed that in redistricting, and I look forward to getting back out on the campaign trail and winning over my new neighborhoods.”
The debates between council members were lengthy and passionate, but eventually Parker was able to lead the council to consensus, she said.
“I could have voted months and months ago on a map and been the fifth vote and I was unwilling to do that,” Parker said. “I wanted us to build consensus, and I think that’s the best thing for the city of Fort Worth moving forward.”
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Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com 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.