Want Panther Island finished? Report shows serious management changes are needed

Updated at 10:55 a.m. to reflect that the draft report has been released.

For Fort Worth’s Panther Island project, the only way out is through. Taxpayers have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars, but it’ll take hundreds of millions more for the investment to pay off.

That’s why the independent review delivered to the Trinity River Vision Authority last week is a crucial turning point for the project.

Authority board members finally relented Tuesday and released the draft report to the public. But the Fort Worth Star-Telegram obtained a copy late last week and reported that the project — a hybrid of flood control, bridge construction and recreation development — needs a major shakeup.

The review by the Dallas-based consulting firm Riveron finds no malfeasance or wrongdoing. That’s important and good to hear, but it only goes so far. The report outlines problems that include a muddled mission, poor communication, lack of clarity on finances and failures of risk management.

The report rates the project on 70 different findings. On only 10 of those is the authority’s work deemed “proficient.” On many, it’s rated sufficient, though on 27 findings, the work is declared insufficient.

As the consultants wrote, the project needs nearly $500 million in federal money in less than a decade to complete the river channel that will create the island. Without it, the envisioned economic development can’t proceed. But no federal official in his or her right mind would read this report and drop another dime into Panther Island until it’s clear that big changes to the project’s governance have been made.

Accountability is key going forward. So authority board members should pay particular attention to the report’s critique of the management structure in place for Panther Island.

The charitable description is that it’s complicated by the various government stakeholders involved. A more cynical view is that the “complicated and opaque governance” keeps any person or entity from getting direct blame for problems.

What’s clear from Riveron’s research is that executive director J.D. Granger has too many bosses to please. On paper, at least, he’s accountable to both the authority board and the Tarrant Regional Water District’s board, along with the water district’s general manager, Jim Oliver. Granger has said that, in effect, Oliver, who’s also a member of the authority board, is his boss.

Follow that? As the old saying goes, if everyone’s in charge, no one is. The consultants recommend that Granger report directly to the authority board. That seems sensible, similar to how the city manager reports to the City Council, or a school superintendent is overseen by an elected board of trustees.

One of the report’s major recommendations gives us pause. The consultants call for creation of a nonprofit corporate entity to handle economic development on Panther Island, similar to the entities that have been responsible for redevelopment of downtown and the Near Southside area.

That could be beneficial down the road. But right now, the last thing this project needs is another layer of management and bureaucracy. The authority board needs to focus on simplifying and fixing the problems identified in the report first.

Let’s be clear about who’s responsible for these fixes. The board is essentially a coordinating body for the governments and agencies contributing to the project. So one of the problems with the current structure is that the authority board isn’t directly accountable to voters.

It falls primarily to Oliver and the board’s president, Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius, to ensure the necessary changes.

From the outside, water district board president Jack Stevens of Azle, county commissioners and Mayor Betsy Price should push the authority board — publicly, if necessary — to act on the consultant’s findings.

And perhaps above all, the board needs to be open, direct and clear in its communications about the project. Taxpayers deserve that, and demonstrating improvement is key to securing the funding and buy-in necessary to finish the job.

After all, nearly two decades in, it’s too late to turn back. The only way to finish this is to clean up the current mess and move forward.

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