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Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley warns against partisanship in final State of the County address

Glen Whitley, an older white man, sits with his legs crossed and smiling up at a video screen. He's wearing a dark gray suit and a black pair of cowboy boots. His wife sits beside him, sitting in the same pose, smiling at the screen as well.
Miranda Suarez
/
KERA
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley has held elected office in the county since 1997, when he became a county commissioner. He's led county government as county judge since 2007.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley isn’t running for reelection, and four days before voters choose his successor, he gave his final State of the County address.

Outgoing Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley warned against the dangers of partisanship at his final State of the County address Friday.

Whitley has served as the county’s top elected official since 2007, and before that, for 10 years as county commissioner. He’s a budget-focused accountant and “bean counter” who came to greater prominence through his handling the county’s COVID-19 response and his public disagreements with fellow Republicans.

Whitley is not running for reelection, and on Friday, he declined to make an endorsement in the race for his job.

The two candidates, Democrat Deborah Peoples and Republican Tim O’Hare, are both the former chairs of their respective parties in the county and could move the county judge’s seat in a more partisan direction. O’Hare promised at his primary victory speech to make Tarrant County "more Republican every single day.”

"What I pray for is that what we're seeing in the campaigns may not be what we see in actuality after the election," Whitley told reporters Friday.

Whitley, a moderate Republican, has been a vocal critic of O’Hare, who is also a former mayor of Farmers Branch and founder of Southlake Families PAC, a conservative group that fought against diversity efforts in the Southlake school system.

Whoever wins needs to remember that they must collaborate with the four other county commissioners, Whitley said.

"In county government, you got to count to three,” he said. “You've got to get your [vote], plus two more, before you're going to get anything done.”

Whitley lamented the low turnout in Tarrant County’s March primary elections, where 17% of registered voters cast a ballot for county judge candidates.

‘The best 26 years of my life’

Hundreds gathered in a hotel ballroom in downtown Fort Worth as Whitley remembered his time on the commissioners court, which he called “the best 26 years of my life.” He took the stage wearing a black pair of cowboy boots from the West Texas County Judges & Commissioners Association, with the state of Texas and the words TARRANT COUNTY embossed in white.

Texas county governments oversee emergency management, and the COVID-19 pandemic threw the county into a constant state of emergency. Whitley looked back on the pandemic’s early days, when his main goal was to keep the hospitals open. He said a willingness to work together made a good response possible.

"We had weekly calls with the cities, with the schools, with the hospitals. The thing that we learned is we had to stay flexible," he said.

A close-up of Glen Whitley's black cowboy boots. Each boot is embossed with the state of Texas in white, with all the west Texas county borders mapped out. Above Texas, it says "WEST TEXAS CJ&C ASSOCIATION. Underneath, the boots say "TARRANT COUNTY."
Miranda Suarez
/
KERA
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley shows off his Tarrant County boots. He wore them to his final State of the County address.

Whitley’s tenure has not been without controversy.

The commissioners court has faced criticism and protests in recent years for approving the 287(g) program. The federal program gives county jail staff some of the same powers as federal immigration agents, like flagging undocumented inmates for deportation – including those who have not yet been convicted of a crime.

Whitley is still happy the program is in place, he said Friday.

"These are folks who you don't want out on the streets,” he said.

Whitley is also leaving the office as critics call for an independent investigation of the Tarrant County Jail over a spike in the number of jail deaths in recent years, a lack of transparency surrounding those deaths, and concerns over jail conditions.

The circumstances of one death are being reexamined after a Fort Worth Star-Telegram investigation found that inmate Robert Miller was pepper-sprayed at close range before his death. He also likely did not have sickle cell disease, which the medical examiner listed as his cause of death, the newspaper found.

Whoever wins the county judge’s seat on Tuesday will take on these issues. Whitley told the crowd on Friday he’ll offer all the help he can to help the new members of the court.

"On November the 9th, I will call all three new court members on our commissioners court. And at that point in time, I will offer to do anything I can do to make this transition to January the 1st as smooth as possible," he said.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Fort Worth reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.