Dallas Rewards Key Figure in Trinity Forest Disasters with Promotion

Sarah Standifer (right) and other Trinity Watershed Management staffers ponder what's left of an environmentally sensitive pond a city contractor drained last September.
Sarah Standifer (right) and other Trinity Watershed Management staffers ponder what's left of an environmentally sensitive pond a city contractor drained last September.
Eric Nicholson

Pop quiz: Aside from the obvious (i.e., poor judgment and inept management), what do the following events have in common?

  • An employee of the city's Trinity Watershed Management is helping organize her boss's retirement party. To cover expenses, she solicits money from several companies that hold lucrative contracts with the department, in violation of city policy and generally accepted standards of conduct for public employees.

  • To combat Dallas' metastasizing feral hog problem, the city hires an outfit called City Trapping. City Trapping, it turns out, was a dude named Osvaldo Rojas who, for all his feral-hog-trapping enthusiasm, which was abundant, lacked the requisite level of professionalism. (Rojas, for instance, liked to tramp through the woods with firearms and post hog-shooting videos on his Facebook page.) Dallas backed out of the contract before it was finished, which left the city's porcine menace free to damage levees, root through the Trinity River Audubon Center, and otherwise wreak havoc.

  • A contractor digging a giant pit in the Great Trinity Forest to obtain dirt for the Trinity Forest Golf Club needs water for dust control. With city approval, the contractor parks a pump next to a small wetland pond and proceeds to drain it almost to its bed. The city realizes after the fact that the pond was an environmentally delicate body of water regulated by the U.S. government and home to federally protected wood storks, among other flora and fauna. The city apologizes.

  • Apparently unaware that he was previously charged with mistreating horses on his ranch in McKinney, the city chooses Wayne Kirk to operate its multi-million dollar Texas Horse Park. In the process, they chase off Kevin Woods, whose homegrown nonprofit was helping troubled youths learn horsemanship skills and responsibility.

Answer: Trinity Watershed Management official Sarah Standifer.

Now, it's not fair to place all the blame for these blunders on Standifer. Trinity Watershed Management is a bureaucracy tacked on to the even larger bureaucracy of City Hall. Standifer had a boss, who reported to an assistant city manager, who reported to the city manager, who reported to the City Council. That said, no one, with the probable exception of Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, had a greater role in implementing TWM policy than did Standifer who, not coincidentally, is said to have been a favorite of former City Manger Mary Suhm. If Jordan was the general, Standifer was the field commander. Essentially all of the city's recent Trinity-related screw-ups bear Standifer's fingerprints.

In the wake of the controversy over the drained pond and other environmental misdeeds around the golf course and horse park, Jordan was removed from oversight of Trinity Watershed Management. The department's former director, Liz Fernandez, is also out. But whatever faint hopes Trinity Watershed's myriad critics in the environmental community may have harbored that the personnel shakeup marked a move toward sounder management and accountability were dashed this week when they learned that Standifer was named the department's permanent director.

Ben Sandifer, an accountant who has become the most prominent defender of the Great Trinity Forest, said he was disappointed to learn of Standifer's promotion. He first met her in early 2013 when she sought him out at a public meeting to discuss nascent plans for the Texas Horse Park, a meeting that was interrupted by Rhadames Solano, a retired cross-country coach protesting the city's condemnation of his modest Pleasant Grove sports club. He would interact with her frequently in the coming months as he and a contingent of fellow environmental watchdogs struggled to keep the city from trampling sensitive natural and historic areas, such as the Pemberton Spring, as it built the horse park, golf course, concrete trails and other amenities. It was an uphill slog. Sandifer found that the city in general and Standifer either paid little heed to environmental concerns or mismanaged their projects so consistently that it had the same effect. When environmentally damaging mistakes inevitably occurred, Sandifer says she would pass the buck. "I don't think I've ever seen her take responsibility," he said.

Standifer didn't respond to an email seeking comment for this story. Assistant City Manager Mark McDaniel said through a city spokesperson that the city conducted a nationwide search for a TWM director and received applications from "several qualified engineers."

"Sarah Standifer proved to be the best candidate for the job," McDaniel said. "While not an engineer, the hiring panel selected Sarah because of her extensive knowledge and technical expertise in floodway management and corridor projects. She also has strong working relationships with our local, state and federal partners."

Sandifer and other watchdogs like the Barker brothers are disappointed with Standifer's new role, but they aren't surprised. Standifer clearly was being groomed for upper management. When word leaked out a few weeks ago that City Hall had quietly tweaked the qualifications for the vacant TWM director job to do away with the required engineering degree (Standifer's educational background is in public administration), it became certain.

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The amended job description was revealing. Trinity Watershed Management has long been lambasted by critics as a black box established to quietly advance the Trinity toll road; its other roles, such as flood control and parks along the Trinity, were mere cover. "The department should be called the department of the toll road, because that's really its function," City Councilman Philip Kingston said on Monday. But in the past it's always been overseen by a licensed engineer who could interpret and sign off on the complex flood-control and other plans that pass through the office. This at the very least gave the department the gloss of objectivity. With Standifer's appointment the city is abandoning the pretense that the Trinity River project is about engineering rather than politics.

"The touchstone moment for me was when the flooding started and they had this big press conference," the environmental advocate recalls. There, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with representatives of Dallas' Office of Emergency Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was Standifer. "The very last person on earth that you ever want to hear anything about what was going on is Sarah."


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