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Political Clout Turns Into Parking Perks For Two Tarrant County Officials

By Jack Douglas Jr. and Ginger Allen, CBS 11 Investigates
CBS 11 Investigators
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FORT WORTH – If you drive, you’ve gone down this path…

That slow crawl through busy downtown streets, looking for an empty parking space that’s reasonably close to where you need to go.
And hoping you have enough change – no pennies please – to feed the meter after you’ve squeezed, tentatively, into a tight spot.

For most of us, downtown parking can be a pain. However, CBS 11 News has found two North Texas politicians who have found a way to escape the hurt – all at the expense of the rest of us looking for a meter to plunk a quarter in.

They are Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and County Commissioner J.D. Johnson, two of the most powerful elected officials in North Texas government. Both park at street meters, next to the county’s administration building in downtown Fort Worth, that are bagged with a clearly printed warning: “Police, Tow Away.”

But that rather ominous message doesn’t apply to Whitley and Johnson, a CBS 11 investigation has found.

Instead, Whitley gets his space for free, in an arrangement made years ago with the city of Fort Worth …and for an entirely different reason.

The county, meanwhile, pays $120 a month – all in taxpayer dollars – for Johnson’s space, mainly so he can park there once a week for Commissioners Court meetings. Johnson refused CBS 11’s requests for an interview, but county officials say that, for health reasons, he needs the easy walk to the meetings.

For sure, street meters are big business for big cities.

Records show that people in Fort Worth fed $1.65 million into the city’s 2,500 parking meters from Oct. 2, 2011 to Sept. 31, 2012. That averages out to $660 a year in revenue for each meter, unless it’s a high traffic area where the average jumps to $1,500 a meter.

Not a dime of that, however, comes from the pockets of County Judge Whitley.

He inherited his spot from the previous county judge, Tom Vandergriff, one of the most respected politicians in North Texas history.

In declining health and hobbled by knee surgery, the city, out of respect for Vandergriff, bagged a parking meter for him in 2003, so he could have just a short walk to his office.

“There was no charge. It was a chance for him to park close so the mobility issues were no longer a problem,” city spokesman Bill Bigley said.

Vandergriff died in 2010. Whitley, who succeeded him as county judge, has continued to take the space despite being in good health.  “We’ve just continued to extend that courtesy to the county because they’re a partner we work with on a regular basis,” Bigley said.

Whitley conceded to CBS 11: “I guess you can call it a perk …”

He went on to say that he needs the spot, rather than using his official parking place just a block from his office, because of his busy schedule.
“I may be going to three or four meetings a day. It would add about 10, 15 minutes, potentially, for each meeting …going and coming …So this way, it just makes it much more convenient,” the county judge told CBS 11.

But what about everyone else who works in the building?  “Most of the people who are in this building …are in this building from 8 to 5,” Whitley said, adding: “So I would disagree with your statement that a lot of other people in this building are going out … out and back … into this building on county business. I don’t think that’s correct.”

That reasoning didn’t play well with Earline Cooper, as she approached her parked van with the aid of a walker.  Cooper thinks public parking meters should be for just one group of people – the public.

“No, really, I think we should all pay our part, even elected officials …they should be for us and help us,” she said, adding: “Even though they are an elected official, they shouldn’t expect benefits.”

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