How Tarrant County Judge Whitley’s attention to detail helped manage growth, COVID
Many Tarrant County residents probably got to know County Judge Glen Whitley in the last year, as shutdowns, mask orders and vaccines flowed through the government he leads.
The pandemic will be a significant part of Whitley’s legacy, but it shouldn’t entirely define his quarter-century on the Commissioners Court. Whitley, who announced Tuesday that he won’t seek another term as judge, brought an accountant’s eye to county government, overseeing a period of rapid growth.
During his four terms as judge — the presiding member of the Commissioners Court, not a judge in the legal system — the county expanded its facilities and services while maintaining a relatively lean budget. Homeowners would no doubt prefer to pay less in property tax, especially as soaring appraisals raise their bills even as governments hold the tax rate steady or even cut it. But commissioners and county administrators have made the best of a bad situation.
The tax issue is central to one of Whitley’s strengths: his willingness to buck his own party. The Hurst Republican has criticized state leaders for their bloviating on taxes but unwillingness to truly fix school funding or let local governments tap other sources of revenue.
During the pandemic, he took heated criticism week after week from far-right opponents of the county’s emergency mask mandate.
We’ve disagreed with Whitley plenty, particularly on the county’s participation in the immigration program known as 287(g), under which jail deputies perform federal status-check duties. There were bumps in the changeover to countywide voting centers. And we wish the county had taken on a bigger role in the Panther Island project as it stumbled along.
But take the 287(g) program as an example of Whitley’s attention to detail. When it came up for renewal last year, everyone knew he was the swing vote on the five-member court. He dug into every corner of the jail’s operations on the program, down to individual cases. We wish he’d reached a different decision, but no one can say Whitley didn’t do his homework.
Like governments at every level, the county struggled at the start of the pandemic. With so many unknowns, it took too long to mount an effective response. But commissioners followed the lead of physicians and public-health experts, even when they took tremendous grief for it. When vaccines became available, Whitley and the commissioners pushed for a more effective rollout and eventually got the county to the point that it was distributing shots as fast as it could get them.
Some wanted Whitley to be more like his Dallas counterpart, Clay Jenkins, who took a firmer hand on shutdowns. But Jenkins’ decisions wore thin with even his own commissioners. Whitley’s approach was better for Tarrant County.
As for Whitley’s replacement, former Tarrant County GOP Chairman Tim O’Hare has already announced he’s running. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, whose decade at City Hall ends next week, may seek the Republican nomination as well. A primary contest between the two would mirror the split in the party between traditional, business-friendly conservatives and fiery culture warriors.
In an open race, Democrats have a better shot than usual, although Democrat Larry Meyers made it relatively close in 2018, taking 47% to Whitley’s 53%. Joe Biden’s victory here last year is another indicator of the county’s competitiveness, although in a midterm election, Republicans likely maintain the edge.
The winner could do worse than to model Whitley’s attention to detail and fiscal responsibility.