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The Harris County Administrator of Departments

I have three things to say about this.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday created a new administrator position to oversee departments, which the three Democrats described as a wonky internal move to improve efficiency but the two Republicans decried as a radical and dangerous usurpation of their power.

The court voted 3-2 along party lines to hire the administrator to oversee the day-to-day activities of the 20 departments that directly report to Commissioners Court. David Berry, the county budget director, will fill the administrator role.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the move is long overdue, arguing that too often departments duplicate efforts addressing some needs, ignore others and fail to work together on big-picture problems that have plagued the county for decades.

“I’m so proud of the things that have been achieved, but would it have taken three 500-year floods for us to have a flood bond that, by the way, isn’t enough?” said Hidalgo, a Democrat. “(Tropical Storm) Allison happened in 2001. But because it’s a parochial system, these kind of things went hush-hush.”

Democratic Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the administrator role will be nonpartisan and noted the other largest counties in Texas, except Travis, already have adopted the model. He said it also would leave intact the longstanding practice in which each commissioner oversees his precinct’s roads, parks and community centers without meddling from other court members.

“Look, I think this makes sense,” Ellis said. “This doesn’t take away from anybody’s fiefdom.”

The two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have a different view. Ramsey said the county has a long history of competent department heads and said he failed to see a need for a new layer of bureaucracy, which the budget office estimates will cost $2 million annually. He also accused his Democratic colleagues of trying to sneak a “power grab” past residents.

“Public transparency we get an F on, in terms of this issue,” Ramsey said.

Cagle said since Democrats control the court, and, thus, get to appoint the administrator, the new position merely allows them to grow their power. He echoed Ramsey’s concerns about redundancy and said the administrator would allow the Democrats to outsource unpopular decisions — such as firing personnel — to an unaccountable bureaucrat.

“We’re accountable to the people in our precincts,” Cagle said. “But the county administrator has no duty except to the majority of three here on the court. In essence, we become isolated.”

1. I dunno, this seems like pretty normal reorganization to me. I’ve been a drone in the corporate world for almost 30 years, I’ve lived through dozens of these. The reason for this reorg makes sense. Whether it achieves success or not will depend on a number of factors, including how the metrics of success are defined (trust me, this is always key). But it’s just normal, boring stuff. I do not understand the freakout.

2. Along those lines, spare me the “power grab” rhetoric. It’s called “having a majority”, and if the voters don’t like it they will get their chance to express that opinion soon enough. The “unaccountable bureaucrat” thing is especially laughable. By that logic, each individual department head is also an “unaccountable bureaucrat”. We elect people to run the government. That comes with a lot of hiring people to do the actual government work. Again, calm yourself down.

3. Whoever this person turns out to be, they’re gonna need a better title than the one I suggested in this post. Feel free to leave your best suggestion in the comments.

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4 Comments

  1. Lobo says:

    As to the merits of arguments on the power, control, and accountability theme, an analogy can be drawn between local and state level.

    MAJORITY CONTROL BY MULTI-MEMBER BODY VS. ONE-MAN RULE

    Note that the governance of the County still relies on a multi-member body – Commissioners Court – while the Office of Attorney General, for example, is run as a “dictatorship” if you will (or a tight ship, no use a milder metaphor), with no elected board or other multi-member body to act as a constraint, and no moderation or oversight by an opposition party. The AG gets to hand-pick his lieutenants, including the Solicitor General, and has ultimate control over the hiring of Assistant AGs even if he is not routinely involved in personnel matters given their large number. They are all bureaucrats, and they are accountable to just one man: currently Ken Paxton.

    And the same point can be made about the Governor, now ruling with Disaster Act powers (whether there is a disaster or one is made up). Not only does he handpick his own staff, he also appoints the SOS and heads of agencies and commissions of the executive branch of government and fills judicial vacancies on a regular basis. One man gets to decide, instead of a multi-member panel or board making appointments by majority decision rule. And oversight in the form of Senate confirmation isn’t much of a constraint when the Senate is not in session.

    Additionally, much more damage can be done at the state level than at the local level, given the power differential between the two levels of government and the State’s assertion of sovereign supremacy to override or quash actions and policies of local governments. The State is in effect embodied by the Attorney General doing the GOP Oligarchy’s bidding, and the Texas Supreme Court then goes along with the “power grab.”

    DEMOCRATIC ACCOUNTABILITY – WHO IS THE DEMOS?

    Note further that the Texas Supreme Court, unlike Harris County Commissioners Court, is composed of members each of whom answers to the same statewide constituency (which also coincides with the statewide constituency of all elected executive-branch officers, including the Governor). So, barring major electoral shifts from one election cycle to the next, they all represent the same majority in the electorate, with no representation for the minority party at all.

    In Harris County, by contrast, we have mixed membership on Commissioners Court (3 Dems, 2 GOPpers) because the four Commissioners are elected from geographically and demographically distinct districts.

    In light of the foregoing, the arguments of Cagle and Ramsey sound hollow and unprincipled. Their party enjoys (and abuses, in the view of their opponents and detractors) the powers and privileges of majority status of which the gentlemen complain at the local level. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey should be happy that they do not have to run for re-election countywide (i.e., at-large) because that would likely be the end of their political careers at the county level, given the blueing trend in the metro areas of Texas, including Harris County.

    PUBLIC INTEREST VS. PRIVATE PROFIT

    That said, I would caution against drawing analogies between the corporate world and the world of government. Government is supposed to serve the entire community. Business operates on the profit motive, and serves the interests of owners. Big difference.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    Overall, I agree with Kuff on this. Good read of the situation, and good write up.

    The (R) opposition is more or less just kneejerk opposition. If Dems said puppy dogs were great, Pubs would vociferously object and say no, it’s kittens that are nice, not puppies. Sigh.

    With that said, I’ll always be convinced that government is always too top heavy with administrators, and I bet I could reorganize things to find a person already employed to take over this role without having to increase the budget. If we’re hiring new people, I’d rather they hire another crew to fix potholes, or another few guys to mow the roadsides, vs. another administrator.

  3. Souperman says:

    Plenty of cities and towns in Texas have a city/town manager (notably, not Houston), a professional accountable to the council and mayor. I see no reason, especially in a county that has so much population and responsibility outside of incorporated areas, not to do something similar if there is a need. I do not follow county issues close enough to truly make an independent judgement on that, though. To be basic, I’d call the position a County Manager (assuming the title isn’t already taken).

    Each commissioner now represents more than 1 million people; I could see a similar argument to increase the court size to bring it closer to the people, but I’m sure that would take a state constitutional amendment.

  4. Lobo says:

    GLEEFULLY ANNOUNCING THE FRESH HARRIS COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR

    In today’s local twitter stream:

    School boards have Superintendents. Corporate boards have CEOs.
    All but one large urban county in Texas rely on a County Administrator.
    Proud to have appointed Dave Berry to help us deliver for our residents.

    OUCH !

    Corporate boards have a chair/man/women. Corporations have executive officers.
    Texas counties have a chief executive officers called a county judge, who is supposed to serve and be accountable to the people of the entire constituency, not stock owners.

    And who’s ever heard of Dave Berry? – That Dave Berry.

    So, was the County Administrator position created to find this handsome fella a job? Who is he, anyhow, and what are his credentials? And how is that the best qualified person for a top-level job can be recruited, interviewed, and vetted in just a matter of days?

    BOTTOM LINE: Not good optics, Lina, first County Executive Latina.

    And while we are being snarky for greater opinion diversity … what is there to be “proud” about exactly? Hand-picking a buddy? Or is he gay (as opposed to merely plain happy to have been appointed) so as to provide special cause for pride — in the semantically morphed senses of both words, respectively?