Commissioners Court starts considering replacements for Bettencourt

It’s time for Harris County Commissioners Court to start picking through the many hopefuls who want Paul Bettencourt’s job and choose a replacement.

At least two dozen names were being floated, including potential Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, ousted District Clerk Theresa Chang and Republican political consultant Court Koenning, who was the chief of staff for state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.

Diane Trautman, a Democrat who lost to Bettencourt in the Nov. 4 election, nominated herself as well, saying Bettencourt’s decision “deprived the voters of an opportunity to decide who will lead the tax office at this critical time in our county’s future.”

The choice now falls to the five members of Commissioners Court, where the Republican Party’s three-seat majority makes the selection of a Democrat unlikely.

The court is not expected to discuss the vacancy at today’s meeting. The next regularly scheduled meeting is Dec. 23, though the panel could call a special meeting before then. Bettencourt said he is willing to stay on the job until Christmas.

Mighty selfless of you there, big guy. Always thinking of how his actions affect others, that’s our Paulie.

Chang, whom the court picked to replace District Clerk Charles Bacarisse when he resigned to challenge County Judge Ed Emmett in the Republican primary, is the most prominent person openly campaigning for the position. Mary Jane Smith, Chang’s campaign consultant, said Chang already has expressed interest to some members of court.

“I think the court and the people are looking for someone who has superb credentials and is just the epitome of government ethics, and that’s Theresa Chang,” Smith said.

Chang’s loss to political newcomer Loren Jackson, however, may hurt her chances with the court’s Republican members, who will be looking for a strong campaigner to hold the seat in 2010.


Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said she is backing Trautman, but knows there is little chance the education professor would prevail. She said she also has asked lawyers to investigate whether there is a way for the court to call an election before 2010. Barring either of those options, she said the court should appoint a “caretaker” who will promise not to run for re-election in two years.

“I think it is an affront to the voters, and I think the voters should speak loudly,” she said. “We should really hear a public outcry about this and why we’re being put in this position.”

I suspect Chang is the frontrunner by virtue of having been picked once before by the Court. She’s a less ridiculous choice than some of the other names being thrown around, like Bill King and Court Koenning, I’ll say that much. I’m glad to see that Commissioner Garcia is in Diane Trautman’s corner, and I agree with her that the next best option after that is a caretaker who won’t run for re-election. I don’t think that’s particularly likely to happen, either, but at least it’s out there.

UPDATE: The Chron urges Trautman’s selection, reminding County Judge Ed Emmett of a promise he made during his campaign along the way.

Emmett campaigned for the position promising to govern in a bipartisan mode, making appointments to county positions without regard to politics.”I don’t even ask what party they belong to,” he told the Chronicle. “It has nothing to do with it, I’m trying to find the best people I can to do the job.” That pledge will now be put to the test.

Just as it did in putting Emmett in his current position, Commissioners Court will select an occupant for Bettencourt’s office until a special election is held two years hence to fill the remainder of his term. With the court evenly divided between two Republican and two Democratic commissioners, Emmett can indeed control whether the appointment is decided on the basis of politics.

The Chronicle believes the best candidate for the job is one who spent the last year campaigning for it and who received 524,558 votes. Diane Trautman, a career educator and Stephen F. Austin State University assistant professor, ran for office pledging to restore its status as “a service organization, not a political organization.” Our endorsement praised Trautman as someone who “will clear the air of partisanship while offering able administration of the office’s core duties.”

Trautman has put in calls to the members of Commissioners Court and talked to several of them about her interest in receiving the appointment. “I would leave my political identity at the door,” says Trautman of how she would conduct herself in the tax office. “You are an employee of the citizens of Harris County, not a political party. You do not use it for any kind of partisan pulpit where you give your views on a partisan agenda.”

The spectacle of one county official after another asking voters to put them in office only to walk away from the job within weeks or months is a sad commentary on their regard for public commitment and service.

In resigning, Bettencourt effectively disenfranchised the more than half million people who voted for him. In appointing a replacement, we hope Commissioners Court recognizes Trautman’s qualifications for the job and the fact that nearly half the county electorate recently voted to put her in that position.

This is a case where the runner-up has earned the title.

As I see it, the case for Trautman is clearer than the case for anyone else. What say you, Judge Emmett?

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