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Former Fort Worth leader’s involvement in new Texas A&M campus raises ethical questions

August 21,2023


See full Fort Worth Report article by Rachel Behrndt here.

Jay Chapa, Fort Worth’s former longtime deputy city manager, signed a contract with the Texas A&M University System about a month after retiring from his role with the city.

His quick job transition raises ethical questions about the strength of Fort Worth’s conflict-of-interest policies limiting the business activities of former employees. 

Former city officials working with a previous employer on behalf of outside entities often raise alarm bells among taxpayers, said Robert Prentice, professor of business law and business ethics at the University of Texas at Austin. 

“You’re worried about people who leave and then are able to take advantage of their past loyalties and past relationships,” Prentice said. 

Chapa signed a contract with the Texas A&M University System on March 10, 2022, about one month after he retired from the city of Fort Worth following 25 years of serving in supervisory and management roles. 

His new role does not create a conflict of interest because he is not negotiating directly with the city on behalf of the university system, Chapa said. Instead, he views his role as a partnership with the city, negotiating the terms of an agreement with a private developer that is building the campus in partnership with Texas A&M. 

“Making sure the developer doesn’t pull a fast one on the public, that’s kind of my role,” Chapa said. 

He draws on his extensive experience coordinating economic development efforts to ensure alignment between public and private partners in Fort Worth, Chapa said. But the combination of public and private interests makes coordinating the Texas A&M-Fort Worth project especially challenging, he said. 

“I like working on stuff that helps Fort Worth and helps the community,” Chapa said. 

Chapa previously served as assistant city manager overseeing police, economic development, public events, human resources, finance and Visit Fort Worth, a tourism nonprofit that is funded by the city. Before he was assistant city manager, Chapa was director of housing and economic development. 

Some of the city staff Chapa now works with on behalf of Texas A&M previously reported to him while he worked with the city. That includes several city department heads whose signatures appear on contracts related to the project’s funding, the city of Fort Worth confirmed. 

The Texas A&M-Fort Worth campus was announced as a “game-changer” for downtown. The project was met with excitement from city and county leadership, who later promised more than $5 million in federal funds for the campus.  So far, the city has promised $2.8 million to support the success of the project. 

Some cities have more stringent standards 

Fort Worth’s city code prevents former city officials from communicating directly with anyone affiliated with the city to influence municipal legislation or administrative action for a year after their departure date. However, that restriction doesn’t apply to someone lobbying on behalf of another governmental agency. Texas A&M University System is a public university and is considered a governmental agency. 

The financing method funding the construction of two-thirds of the downtown project requires expertise to navigate, according to the university. Generally lobbyists rely more on relationships than expertise when consulting on behalf of an industry or business, said Prentice, the UT-Austin professor. 

“Having relationships with people in government, especially governments they used to work for, is more important to their pay, than how clever they are, how smart they are, how much they actually know,” Prentice said. 

Chapa describes his role as coordinating rather than lobbying. 

The city’s policy also prevents former officials from communicating with the mayor, City Council members or city employees in an attempt to get information that is not available to the general public.  

Chapa sought advice from the city attorney on how to comply with the ordinance in his work with the university system, the city said in a statement. The ordinance did not prohibit him from consulting with the university on matters within his expertise, including financing tools available to the city, according to the statement. 

The issue at hand is objectivity, Prentice said. Taxpayers want to be assured that public officials are making the most objective decisions possible on how to spend taxpayer dollars, he said. 

“If, for example, they've got three bidders for the project, I’d kind of like them not to have relationships with those bidders,” Prentice said. “If one of those bidders is their best friend, they're not going to be objective. If one of those bidders is their former boss, or coworker, it's going to be very hard for them to be objective.”

When public officials leave a position with a government entity, then accept a position with a private entity that interacts with that entity, it is often described as a “revolving door.” That revolving door phenomenon can cause a conflict of interest that erodes public trust, Prentice said. 

The city could strengthen its revolving door policy by lengthening the waiting period and making it more generally applicable, Prentice said. 

Other cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, have policies to prevent challenges related to the revolving door. In Los Angeles, high-ranking city officials are prohibited from lobbying the city for a year after their departure with no exceptions for employees who move on to work for another public entity. The city also permanently bans former city employees from attempting to influence any city agency for any matter that they “personally and substantially” participated in during city service. 

Dallas’ policies for former employees is similar to Fort Worth, prohibiting former city employees from lobbying the city for one year after their departure unless they are employed by another public entity. The Dallas policy also prevents former employees from entering into any agreements related to a contract they were involved with during their employment with the city. 

Chapa tasked with ‘negotiating’ and ‘coordinating’ on behalf of Texas A&M System

Chapa’s original contract included advising the university system on working with the city and project management. He received $5,000 per month for his services. 

A year later, the contract expanded in scope after the city and university reached an agreement with a master developer. Now, Chapa is required to negotiate on behalf of the university system to “ensure alignment between City and Texas A&M University System,” coordinating between the developer, city and university on design and construction, according to his contract with the university system obtained by the Report. 

The university system is now paying Chapa $12,500 per month, plus approved reimbursements for his services for two years. In all, Chapa could receive $380,000 form the university system for consulting services.  

Chapa will also assist the Fort Worth-Tarrant County Innovation Partnership and maintain relationships between other public-private projects near the downtown university. The partnership is a continuation of the Fort Worth Now committee, created by Mayor Betsy Price in 2020 to explore how the city’s business community could respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Fort Worth-Tarrant County Innovation Partnership was created in February by the city and county to support the Texas A&M-Fort Worth campus and surrounding area. The city and county are evenly splitting a $4 million investment as part of the partnership. 

The Texas A&M development is intended to advance the committee’s goals by advancing the city’s ability to recruit and retain jobs and employers.

“The genesis of the TAMUS development began well before Jay Chapa's involvement as an individual consultant,” the city said. 

The city recently also agreed to spend $165,000 in federal funds to share the costs of designing and building sewer and water infrastructure for the downtown campus. The city agreed to lease 400 parking spaces to faculty, staff and students at the downtown campus for $60 per parking space monthly. 

Project financing requires coordination between public, private partners

Texas A&M hired Chapa to advise the university system on city procedures and the Local Government Corporation process, Laylan Copelin, the university’s vice chancellor of marketing and communications, said in a statement. The city did not object to Chapa’s hiring, he added. 

“His contribution is important to the A&M System as we strategize on how best to finance and construct buildings two and three on the Texas A&M-Fort Worth campus with our partners, the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County,” Copelin said in a statement. 

The campus will house three buildings on four city blocks in southeast downtown. The Law & Education center will be the first built on campus and house the university’s law school and other academic programs from Texas A&M University, Texas A&M Health and Tarleton State University. That construction is primarily funded by the university. The total cost is expected to be $150 million.

The Research & Innovation building will have space for Texas A&M system agencies to work alongside private sector tenants. The Gateway Building will provide more classrooms, meeting spaces and a conference center.

The city created the Research & Innovation Local Government Corp. on Jan. 10 to use debt to finance construction for two of the three Texas A&M-Fort Worth buildings. In this case, forming a local government corporation will allow the project to be completed faster than it would otherwise, Chapa said. 

A local government corporation is a public, nonprofit corporation that is legally different from the city itself, but still required to follow certain public meeting laws. 

The university system will lease 1.86 acres of land destined to become the site of the two remaining Texas A&M-Fort Worth buildings from the local government corporation. In turn, the university will sublease the land to a master developer who will construct the two buildings destined to house academic and commercial tenants. 

A selection committee, including executives from the city, county, university and private sectors, chose master developer Edgemoor and KDC to design, construct and manage the project. Edgemoor, led by president Neal Fleming, is based in Virginia and focused on public-private partnerships. KDC is a Dallas-based company focused on building corporate campuses. It’s led by ​​Steve Van Amburgh, CEO, and Toby Grove, president. 

On May 5,  the city entered into an agreement with U3 Advisors Inc., paying the company $70,000 to provide assistance negotiating with the development team of Edgemoor and KDC on financing, design, construction, and maintenance of the Texas A&M-Fort Worth campus. 

The city anticipates presenting final financing and development plans to City Council this fall. Negotiations on the terms of the city and universities’ agreement with Edgemoor and KDC are ongoing. 

Chapa is uniquely positioned to advise the university on the details of local government corporations, given his former position with the city, Copelin said. This financing structure is one of the most complex in his 25-year career, Chapa said. 

Chapa works with Fort Worth’s aviation director, Roger Venables,to negotiate the terms of the agreement with the developer, Chapa said. He was not involved in negotiating terms of the local government corporation. Those terms were finalized after Chapa’s  retirement. However, city leaders discussed creating a corporation for the project before his exit, he said. 

“There’s nothing abnormal about what the city is doing in this situation,” Chapa said. 

‘Once-in-a-lifetime’

Fort Worth leadership has consistently touted Texas A&M University-Fort Worth as a boon to Fort Worth’s economy and workforce. It’s a part of a broader effort to increase investment in downtown. 

“We see this is a once-in-a-lifetime transformative opportunity,” Mayor Mattie Parker said at the groundbreaking for the downtown campus. 

Texas A&M-Fort Worth will coincide with the expansion of Fort Worth’s convention center and the nearby Omni Hotel. The Law & Education Building is scheduled for completion by 2025. 

“Texas A&M University System’s plan to design and construct a campus in Fort Worth represents a significant opportunity to foster innovation, business development and job creation within Fort Worth,” the city said in a statement. 

The project is just one piece of an estimated $2.5 billion in development headed for Fort Worth’s downtown.

“It is the most enthusiastic reception we’ve received anywhere, including in College Station,” said John Sharp, chancellor of Texas A&M, during a Feb. 9  news conference

The project's transformative potential drew Chapa to his role with the university from the start, he said. 

“It’s going to attract other corporate users and new jobs for residents, it's a positive all the way around,” Chapa said. 

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

This article first appeared on Fort Worth Report and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


Location Mentioned: Texas A&M Fort Worth