FORT WORTH, Texas — Bruce Miller has watched with great disappointment as a City Council-appointed task force creates the rules for the city’s redistricting process. The long-time TCU physics professor — and now professor emeritus — is one of a growing number of citizens who want the Council’s districts to be drawn by an independent body, not the council members themselves. Currently, as he sees it, the City Council is choosing its constituents, not the other way around.
At several public meetings of the Redistricting Task Force, which was formed after a City Council resolution in August, Miller watched as numerous people spoke about the need for an Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC). The city, he and others believe, isn’t listening.
City staffers filed an interim report in December to update the public and City Council on the task force’s progress. The many voices demanding an independent body weren’t mentioned in the report, leading many observers like Miller to believe the committee is just a public show to placate critics.
“They had already heard people speaking at their regular meetings that the public strongly supported an IRC,” he said. “So we live in a city where people make it a point to give testimony, and then when [the city] makes their reports, they don't even mention it.”
The impetus of the task force dates back to December 2016, when a Fort Worth Police officer wrestled Jacqueline Craig to the ground in a clear case of excessive use of force. A video of the incident went viral. Outgoing Mayor Betsy Price told Spectrum News 1 that the city’s handling of that incident was the biggest regret of her 10-year tenure.
Amid cries for reform, the city created The Task Force on Race and Culture, which, after 18 months of meetings, work sessions, public comment, and vigorous study, made 22 recommendations on how to ease racial tension in the city and make government work for everyone. The task force’s suggestions were met with universal applause from all levels of government, with City Manager David Cooke vowing to implement each of them.
One of the major bullet-points promoted by the Race and Culture Task Force was the creation of an IRC. Some on the Council and within the city pushed back on the idea, and the IRC was taken off the table. Yet another task force was created to take its place.
The Redistricting Task Force was meant to be an independent committee of citizens — composed entirely of City Council and mayoral appointees — tasked with “evaluating the criteria and procedures by which the City Council has has redrawn Council district boundaries in the past, and, accordingly, advising the City Council about redistricting criteria and procedures that the City Council should use in the future,” according to the city’s website.
The task force was also charged with creating rules that would prevent gerrymandering, provide opportunities to elect people who reflect Fort Worth’s diverse population and to promote education and public participation.
As Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa pointed out to Spectrum News 1, the task force’s charge was only to create the rules for the redrawing of district boundaries, not to make a decision on whether or not the city should appoint an IRC. The decision to continue to allow Council Members to draw their own boundaries was made before the Task Force was ever created.
“The Task Force on Race and Culture, in its 2018 final report, expressed interest in independent redistricting as a way to promote fair representation on the City Council,” he said in an email. “They stopped short, however, of recommending the creation of an independent redistricting commission. They recommended instead that the Council appoint a charter review task force that would study the desirability of a proposed charter amendment requiring the Council to create such a commission.”
The city and Council’s decision to hold on to its map-drawing duties, he continued, was an accountability issue.
“In the resolution creating the Redistricting Task Force and in subsequent communications, the Council has clearly expressed its intent to retain authority for local redistricting,” he said. “In doing so, Council members have cited principles of democracy and accountability, whereby citizens elect their representatives to make these kinds of decisions with the understanding that those elected officials are ultimately accountable to their constituents.”
Miller, a founding member of the group Citizens for Independent Redistricting Fort Worth, called Costa’s comments “very slanted,” and noted the public’s concern that the city was just “looking to whitewash” the Jacqueline Craig incident.
“Look at the statements of the [Task Force on Race and Culture] … to avoid gerrymandering and excessive self-interest, the intent of the TFRC was to take the drawing of district boundaries out of the hands of the elected officials,” he said. “What could be more clear? Their intent was to create a different procedure for establishing Council districts that does not include the Council members themselves. The IRC was their main focus, but they recognized that other procedures that result in an independent body creating districts might also be acceptable. The city has totally confirmed and validated the concerns of those TFRC members that the city was just looking for a pacifier and not a real solution.”
“With regards to the current task force, several members kept raising the issue that the city needs an IRC and that this would satisfy the need for ‘best practices’ in government,” he continued. “In order to placate them, at their third meeting, the chair and the task force members agreed that if there was a substantial public demand for an IRC at the scheduled public hearings, they would consider this option in their final planning session. Indeed, that is what occurred. The public comments were numerous and nearly all were in support of the establishment of an IRC to create new Council districts when the city will go from 8 to 10 districts in the 2023 municipal election.”
Costa agreed that a majority of people who have spoken at public meetings throughout this process were in favor of creating an IRC. But, he reiterated, that wasn’t the task force’s job.
“The task force chair has consistently reminded these speakers … about the task force’s scope of responsibilities, which is limited to making recommendations about the criteria and procedures by which the Council itself should redraw its district boundaries,” he said. “The chair has encouraged proponents of independent redistricting to express their opinions directly to the City Council.”
Miller and other critics maintain the city has engineered the whole redistricting process to avoid dealing with the Task Force on Race and Culture’s recommendations in a meaningful way.
“Consider that these are 11 adults who, like the members of the TFRC, should be able to decide for themselves what best suits the needs of our citizens,” he said. “This should be the main goal of any appointed body.”
The Redistricting Task Force will present its final report to the City Council on Tuesday, March 2. The Council will vote whether to adopt the body’s suggestions on Tuesday, March 16.