Fort Worth

It’s a $1B project, but Panther Island’s head honcho has never had a written job review

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Read more about Fort Worth’s $1.16 billion flood control and economic development project that has stopped receiving federal funds.

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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect comments from U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey.

FORT WORTH — The top manager overseeing the $1.16 billion Panther Island project has never received a written performance evaluation.

J.D. Granger, the executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, said near constant communication with his boss has ensured that his work is up to par during his 12 years on the job. The authority oversees promotion and coordination of the Panther Island project and is a political subdivision of the Tarrant Regional Water District.

Water district general manager Jim Oliver is “very direct,” Granger said. “There’s not a lot of gray area for what he wants.”

Granger, son of Republican U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, earns $213,000 a year in his publicly funded position. Two other water district executives whose salaries are paid by taxpayers also haven’t received written evaluations — Alan Thomas, deputy general manager of the water district, who is paid $239,000, and Dan Buhman, assistant general manager, who makes $213,000.

Other employees of the water district receive annual written evaluations, according to a review of personnel records obtained by the Star-Telegram through an open records request.

The 800-acre Panther Island would be created through the re-routing of the Trinity River north of downtown. Three bridges that would span the new channel are under construction. The project faces an independent review after it missed out on federal funding for 2019, and those crafting its scope say it should include a look at the project’s management and structure.

The Trinity River Vision Authority board of directors, made up of government officials, will meet Wednesday to discuss the review’s scope. The authority is overseeing the Army Corps of Engineers project, which has swelled in cost since a $435 million estimate in 2005.

Fort Worth city manager David Cooke said he asked about evaluations for the executive director’s position when he first joined the authority’s board. At the time, having the position report directly to Oliver, who reports to a separate water district board, made sense and “didn’t raise any red flags.”

But Cooke said the independent review should address whether that command structure works.

“It’s an appropriate question,” he said. “You’ve got the director of the TRVA reporting to the TRWD director, who reports to the water district board, not (the TRVA) board.”

At City Hall, formal evaluations are meant to show what’s been accomplished and what should be done in the future, Cooke said. Even if a formal report isn’t made, records of the evaluation would likely be available, he said.

Calls for a third party analysis of Panther Island started with Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who was joined by council members. Kay Granger’s Democratic opponent, Vanessa Adia, also asked for an analysis. Concern about future federal funding fueled the requests, along with questions about scaling back the project to focus entirely on the flood control channel.

The scrutiny followed news that the project was left out of the Army Corps of Engineers 2019 work plan and has not been a priority of the White House’s budget. The project needs $26 million in 2020 to stay on track.

Representatives for Kay Granger’s office did not return requests for comment. Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey, who supported the Panther Island project, said he also supports significant review of the work done.

“ I support a 100% full review of all employees and every aspect of the project from top to bottom, including all money spent and employee reviews,” he said in a statement.

Kay Granger Thursday became the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful standing committees in Congress.

Jim Lane, a board member of both the Tarrant Regional Water District and Trinity River Vision Authority, said he wasn’t concerned about the lack of written evaluations for J.D. Granger’s position.

The authority has been the public face of the project, promoting Panther Island events, coordinating government agencies and vetting design standards for development of the future island, but the Army Corps of Engineers would manage construction of the channel and other federally funded flood-control pieces.

“The channel is an Army Corps job. We don’t see any of that money,” Lane said. “We have a contract to just make the project shovel ready for them.”

Oliver’s oversight of J.D. Granger’s position within the water district without board review is appropriate given the staff size at the water district, Lane said.

“It’s the kind of deal where you’ll know if somebody isn’t doing something right,” he said.

Clyde Picht, who voted in favor of the project when he was on the Fort Worth City Council, became a critic when the scope and cost ballooned. He questioned how decisions about the Granger’s salary and role would be made without written evaluations.

“You ask any businessman, they’d say ‘We counsel the individual and we write a record for their file,’” he said. “How does anyone in the future know about what’s been done?”

If the independent review showed the need for organizational change, J.D. Granger said he’d be open to reporting to the board or receiving written evaluations.

“I’m fine with that,” he said. “I think I’ve done a great job for 12 years, so bring it on.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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