Yesterday I took an interesting field trip into a part of the Trinity Forest that is off limits, for now, to civilians. For the first time, I got to lay eyes on the huge pit that was created when soil was excavated to build the Trinity Forest Golf Club. I wrote about this pit for D Magazine in December 2016, but at that point I’d only seen it in photographs, most of which had been taken by satellites. Seeing a colossal mistake up close and personal is always preferable to seeing it from space. So the trip yesterday was instructive.
The excursion was made at the insistence of Mark McDaniel, the assistant city manager in charge of Trinity Watershed Management, which we have called the city’s most inept department. Well, he’s in charge of TWM until Friday, when he leaves Dallas to go run the city of Kerrville. Yesterday, McDaniel brought with him three city employees: Susan Alvarez, a TWM assistant director over floodplain and drainage management; Karen Woodard, the city’s forester; and Sarah Standifer, the director of TWM. The rest of the group was comprised of environmental activists and cranks, including but not limited to: Hal and Ted Barker, Laray Polk, Becky Rader, Jim Flood, and Ben Sandifer.
There were about a dozen folks, all together. The activists and cranks hadn’t been allowed since the fall of 2014 to visit the site of the huge pit because it’s a construction site and, I presume, because the city isn’t proud of what has happened there. Violations of state environmental laws. That sort of thing. But Alvarez, from TWM, started off by telling the group that the city is making progress in remediating the site and getting things under control. The city has planted vegetation to control erosion, she said. And now that the pit has filled with water, it makes a nice habitat for birds.
After Alvarez finished, things got interesting. Rader and others made the point that a construction pit with 20 feet of water in it doesn’t much help waterfowl. They prefer a depth of something closer to 1 foot. And the plantings? Some of the cranks were shocked to see that fig trees, a non-native species, had been planted at the edge of the pit. As the conversation heated up, Flood walked around weeding the place, pulling up bastard cabbage, an invasive species. There was too much Johnson grass to even think about yanking it all out.
Then Sandifer produced a three-ring binder. It was filled with hundreds of pages of documents related to the pit that he has gotten through open records requests. Holding up his binder, Sandifer inveighed against TWM’s bungling and its refusal to turn over documents — or, at least, Sandifer did his version of inveighing. He doesn’t really inveigh. He’s too polite to inveigh. But for Sandifer, he got pretty worked up.
You can listen to all this, if you’d like. There were dueling recorders at yesterday’s field trip. Woodard, for the city, recorded everything that was said. Hal Barker made a recording for the cranks. It skips in places, because he was using a phone. If you are inclined to press play, you’ll hear Alvarez speaking first. Rader is the one who makes the point about waterfowl. Sandifer comes in at the 4:48 mark. I found it interesting that for a large part of Sandifer’s roughly seven-minute speech, Standifer, the TWM director, hung at the outskirts of the circle of field trippers, head down, kicking dirt.
Without McDaniel, this exchange never would have happened. He deserves credit for that. But his response to Sandifer started with “I appreciate your passion” and ended with “My last day on the job is Friday.” He told the cranks that if they had questions, those questions should be directed to Alvarez and Standifer, at TWM. In so many words: “See you, suckers! I’m headed to the Hill Country!”
Here’s my takeaway from the field trip: the pit is a mess. It’s been a mess for years. Trinity Watershed Management has ignored it. And, yes, they have stymied open records requests; Sandifer has proof that the department has failed to turn over documents that it was required by law to hand over. The cranks don’t trust the city, and for good reason. The city doesn’t know what it’s doing.
So here comes a great opportunity for our new city manager, T.C. Broadnax. He gets to install a new assistant city manager, someone who can come in and overhaul Trinity Watershed Management, someone who has a shot at restoring the trust of the cranks, who look more and more like the city’s greatest resource when it comes to the Trinity River and the Trinity Forest. Broadnax has a whole host of TWM screwups he can review as he decides whether to promote someone from within City Hall or bring in an outsider, someone, like Broadnax himself, who can make real changes. But he’s a busy man. Lots on his plate. For expediency’s sake, I suggest that Broadnax focus just on what happened at the big pit. Have a look at Ben Sandifer’s three-ring binder. He’ll be only too happy to show it to him.