Elections with only local issues on the ballot – school board races, bond issues, choices for leadership of obscure bodies like water districts and community colleges – usually draw less voter interest in these parts than the question of whether to dine out on Mexican food or barbecue on Saturday night.
But the intense local election coming up on May 10 could be different, with growing numbers of critics getting indigestion over just about every issue facing the voters. At the Tarrant Regional Water District, the one non-incumbent on the ballot said he almost had to call police to be allowed to file his candidacy and charged that the district is illegally keeping information about its meetings from citizens.
On the North Side, some residents have vowed to unseat an incumbent Fort Worth school board member because, they say, she has failed to acknowledge the alarming drop-out rate among this city’s Hispanic youth. Around the city, many neighborhood associations, in a rare move, are opposing Fort Worth’s $150 million bond issue because of what their leaders say is a hidden clause that will provide more than $10 million for bridges for the Trinity River Vision – bridges they say will benefit mostly private developers. After a visit from Mayor Mike Moncrief, promising long-neglected neighborhood improvements, one group dropped its vocal opposition.
But by May 10, the deepest voter anger may be directed at the TCC trustee races, where four people are running for two slots on the board. At issue: the failure of TCC administrators to release a critical security report showing the “high risk” for rape in the area where the district’s $300 million-plus downtown campus is under construction. Although the district at first denied the existence of the report and then refused to release it, Fort Worth Weekly obtained a copy and showed it to trustee candidate Joe Hudson, who said he was stunned at its contents and the secrecy surrounding it. “I have a daughter. I would not in any way want her to be on a campus with that type of risk. It seems to me by not releasing this, the administration is trying to cover this fact up.”
Hudson, a Bedford business analyst, and a second candidate, Jerry Pikulinski, both oppose the downtown campus, which was supposed to cost $135 million and be open by 2008. In four years, the cost has escalated to $297 million plus another $41 million in land costs. The opening date is still unknown, and major questions remain about vital permits for part of the campus and TCC’s failure to heed historical preservation concerns. Pikulinski is running against incumbent Kristin Vandergriff, while Hudson faces Conrad Heede. Vandergriff and Heede support the new campus; neither returned calls seeking interviews for this story.
Pikulinski, an Arllington economist, and Hudson charge the trustees with having been derelict in their fiduciary duties, losing sight of their mission to bring quality and affordable education to the community. Although Pikulinski was aware of the crime assessment document, neither he nor Hudson had ever seen it. Pikulinski said he was angered by the administration’s apparent disregard of the threat to students, especially women. “This goes to the heart of the lack of careful planning that went into this campus,” he said.
When the Weekly asked the college for a copy under the Texas Open Records Act, college officials first said no such report existed. Then, acknowledging the report existed, the college asked the state attorney general’s office for permission to allow it to withhold the document on the grounds that its release could threaten the college’s security. The AG’s office has not ruled, but in the interim, a source outside the college provided the Weekly with a copy.
The assessment, done by an Austin-based security consulting company using Fort Worth crime statistics, shows a high incidence of rape in the area surrounding the campus, which will be a few blocks east and north of the county jail. The report also warns of high incidences of burglary and auto theft and cautions that the campus design provides “many hiding places” making it “ideal for vagrants … .” “Everything the board has done, from continuing to fund this college to allowing such a document to be withheld from the public borders on serious wrongdoing,” Pikulinski said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the state attorney general is called in at some point.”
More than 40 years ago, Larry Meeker headed up a committee that sold county voters on the need for a junior college district. Today he heads up another committee, funded this time with $18,000 of his own money, for a get-out-the-vote campaign in support of Hudson and Pikulinski. “If the current regime is not challenged, how far will it go beyond where it’s already gone? At some point, someone has got to stand up and say ‘No more,’ ” he said. All three men said construction should stop now, and the site should be sold off to downtown developers, and a new, less expensive – and less controversial – location and design should be substituted.
Like the TCC downtown campus, several of the most potentially controversial issues on the ballot are tied in one way or another to the giant Trinity River Vision plan that could profoundly reshape downtown’s northern edge and the parts of the North Side and West Side closest to the river. In fact, virtually the only controversy over Fort Worth’s $150 million bond election relates to the river-development mega-project. The bond election ballot gives no hint of that – it’s one item, with all of the money described as going for “street improvements.” But included in that amount is $10.2 million to pay for construction of some Trinity Uptown bridges as part of the TRV project.
Sandy Oliver, the city’s assistant director of financial management services, explained that bridges are traditionally “street-network related” and therefore legitimately included in a street-related bond proposal. And city spokesperson Jason Lamers said that the bridges are not new construction, but rather an existing need, because money for their design and enginnering was OK’d by voters in 2004. However, neighborhood activists, including the Fort Worth League of Neighborhood Associations, lobbied to have the bridge money broken out in a separate line item. Libby Willis, acting president of the league, said the group asked for the breakout so that voters could know what they are voting for or against. The city council refused.
Eastside Sector Alliance member Louis McBee called the wording of the proposition blackmail. “I have to vote for the new [bridge] construction in order to take care of my neighborhood,” he said. Bob Bashein of the Ridglea Hills Neighborhood Alliance said his neighbors are upset at the council’s refusal to separate the bridge money. Voting “no” on the whole issue, he said, will “send a message to the mayor and some of the council” that they had better listen to the neighborhoods.
The growing clout of neighborhood associations has already been underscored, however, even before one vote has been counted. One of the most vocally active community groups publicly opposing the bond election, the North Fort Worth Alliance, was suddenly made aware of its importance two weeks ago when councilman Sal Espino and Moncrief brought news that the area would get several million dollars in Barnett Shale profit to pay for for long-neglected neighborhood improvements.
Espino confirmed the meeting but said its timing, so close to the election, was coincidental. Gas profits, he said, will go to the places that need them most, not to sway neighborhood positions on the bond initiative. “We have been discussing this for months,” Espino said. Nonetheless, following the good news, NFWA backed down from opposing the bond election. Executive Director Colleen Demel said that NFWA now has “no official” position on the bond issue. “The issue is extremely emotional for our area,” she said. The Tarrant Regional Water District, of course, has been the key agency in crafting the Trinity plan and seeking funding for it. In the May 10 election for the water district board, the three top vote-getters among the four candidates will be elected. Three are incumbents, and the fourth said he almost didn’t get to file.
John Basham, a consulting meteorologist, said that, early on the morning of the last day of filing, he took all of his documents to the agency’s office on Northside Drive – only to find that the staffer in charge of the election had taken that day off. Basham couldn’t find anyone who would accept his documents. He waited hours, he said, and finally got someone to accept the documents after threatening to call the law. “I knew my rights, but they didn’t seem to care,” he said. Basham wants to throw some light on the agency that he said operates as if it’s a private corporation unanswerable to the public.
Even though the TRWD is publicly funded, covering more than 10 counties and serving more than 1.5 million people, it doesn’t post its meeting notices on its web page as almost every other government agency does. Instead it tacks its notices up 24 hours in advance on the gate of its headquarters in Fort Worth, Basham said, “as if someone from Jack County is going to drive to Fort Worth every day to check the gate for the meeting times.” In another curious turn, he said, “the agenda for the meeting is posted on the web site, but not until the day after the meeting.”
That is all going to change if he’s elected, Basham said. “I’ll post everything that happens or is going to happen on my own web site. This place is going to be transparent – that’s my first order of business.” Basham is not against the Trinity River Vision project, but he is against the TRWD involvement. “This is a terrible diversion for the water board,” he said. “Its primary job is to provide adequate, clean water for its customers.” He knows he won’t have support on the board if he’s elected, but Basham said he’ll have a bully pulpit. Incumbents also running are Vic Henderson, Hal Sparks, and Jack Stevens. None could be reached for comment.
In the Fort Worth school district races, the heat is on in District 2, where incumbent Camille Rodriguez is being challenged by Dr. Carlos Vasquez, a former teacher and principal in the district for 16 years. Rodriguez was the favorite of the Northside community when she was elected four years ago, but Vasquez said she’s fallen into disfavor. “Since she’s been on the board, our high schools [North Side High and Diamond Hill] have fallen from high-performing to unacceptable, and the drop-out rate for Hispanic kids is hovering around 50 percent,” he said.
In a forum recently with board candidates, Allied Community of Tarrant spokesman Jose Aguilar said the group’s research is based on findings by the state and a government research group headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He said his group is disappointed with the current board’s denial of the extent of the problem. “This is the most critical issue we have,” Vasquez said, “and we’ve got to have a representative who is going to fight to keep these kids in school.” Vasquez also took on the current administration of district Superintendent Melody Johnson. “If you think [former superintendent Thomas] Tocco’s regime was top-heavy with a half-dozen high-paid administrators, you must look at hers” – with 23 top officials drawing $3.2 million in salaries, he said. “That’s got to be challenged.”
Rodriguez, a podiatrist, acknowledged that the drop-out rate is ” a problem.” But, she said, “the numbers are in conflict because there are so many different criteria used to count these kids.” She said she trusts the Texas Education Agency, which shows Fort Worth’s drop-out rate at about 16 percent. She said those numbers were skewed by the Katrina kids, many of whom have gone back to New Orleans. “I do know the rates are decreasing. We have several inititives in place” from involving parents to involving employers, she said “The business community has got to be part of the solution.”
Early voting ends May 6.