Trinity River board gets to edit ‘independent’ Panther Island review. Are you kidding?

What is Panther Island?

Panther Island is a $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River and redirect flood waters around the low-lying areas north of downtown. Here's what you should know.
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Panther Island is a $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River and redirect flood waters around the low-lying areas north of downtown. Here's what you should know.

Updated at 3:50 p.m. to reflect Mayor Betsy Price’s statement:

There’s a joke in journalism and politics about the “Friday news dump.” That’s when public officials release unfavorable information late on a Friday afternoon, hoping reporters and voters have already turned their attention to the weekend.

But one of the most brazen attempts we’ve seen to delay and obfuscate potentially bad news happened in broad daylight on a Wednesday, in a public meeting here in Fort Worth.

Trinity River Vision Authority officials have received an independent review of the troubled Panther Island flood control project. Questions about transparency and the effort’s fiscal management have lingered for months. But the board’s leadership decided that you — the taxpayers footing the bill — don’t deserve to see the report yet.

We are astonished that a report paid for with taxpayer money could be delivered to publicly appointed and elected officials and discussed at a public meeting, yet kept a secret. It defies logic, common sense and the very spirit of open government.

And because of a ridiculous decision by the board’s president, you may never know what the review actually concluded without a few layers of spin from the very people charged with ensuring the project is well-run and publicly accountable.

The authority board’s chief, Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius, said he wants board members to have a chance to examine the report from Dallas consultant Riveron. Board members and, incredibly, the very staff whose work the effort is designed to critique, may be allowed to make changes.

That means not just the facts and data that inform the report; they might even be able to alter the consultants’ recommendations about what steps should be taken next. It looks as if they will be given a chance to change anything in the report that might be a public relations blow for the project and its leadership.

This makes a mockery of what was supposed to be an “independent” review, which Panther Island sorely needs. Voters and public officials have been patiently supportive of the project, even through missteps and the ongoing failure to secure federal funding. Mayor Betsy Price, in particular, has pushed for a full public accounting of what’s gone wrong.

If the public can’t see the consultant’s unvarnished conclusions — again, in a report that may cost taxpayers nearly half a million dollars — reasonable people can only suspect that the full truth has been hidden.

Already, there’s reason to suspect someone might benefit from watering down the final product. Portions of the report revealed to NBC5 reporters outline potentially serious financial mismanagement, a poorly managed organization and “insufficient … oversight and transparency.”

The irony of hiding a report that criticizes transparency is astounding.

When you’re in a hole, the first step to getting out is to quit digging. The entire project’s credibility is at stake, and yet somehow, allowing the board or staff to tweak the report is supposed to improve the public’s understanding?

City Manager David Cooke, City Council member Carlos Flores, and Trinity Regional Water District board member James Hill, all members of the authority board, deserve praise for raising strong objections to the delays and the call for possible editing.

They understand what Maenius apparently does not: If the review’s edges are softened, the credibility of the entire project comes into even greater question. Playing games with the report could very well leave Panther Island in a worse position than when the review started.

After this editorial was initially published, Price called for the “timely and transparent release” of the Riveron report. The mayor noted in a written statement that the 30-day review period was not part of the initial timeline for the report, “and, rightfully so, Fort Worth taxpayers are frustrated.”

We hope City Council members and the Tarrant Regional Water District’s board members will also add pressure for the report to be immediately released. Voters need to see the complete document to understand what they’re paying for and the stakes ahead.

If they don’t, no hour on a Friday will be late enough to mask the stench that’s starting to form on the Panther Island project.

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