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From the “It’s good to be the czar” files

Every few years we get an article like this one about how the sweetest gig in the state is being a Harris County Commissioner.

Commissioners may have the safest jobs in Harris County politics. No incumbent has lost an election since 1974.

“Commissioners, from a political perspective, are here for perpetuity,” said former county tax assessor Paul Bettencourt.

Their lock on their $145,000-a-year jobs, huge constituencies and wide discretion to spend hundreds of millions of dollars cause some to compare commissioners privately to “demigods” and “monarchs” and their precincts as “fiefdoms.”

Commissioners’ built-in job security derives from massive, gerrymandered precincts, piles of campaign cash and the ability to run on the roads they build, not the voting record they compile.

You may recall Rick Casey’s column from 2005, which was the last such entry in this series. One thing that caught my eye from that article:

The judge may be elected countywide, and his $137,424 salary may be about $7,000 more than the commissioners, whose turf is a quarter of the county, but neither the area of the turf nor the amount of the salary defines power.

In other words, five years ago the Commissioners’ salaries were $15,000 less than they are today. On an annual basis, as a percentage of their salary, it’s not that much. But given that they’re going to be cutting budgets and forcing layoffs as a result of the county’s financial situation, we should keep that in mind.

Anyway, this article goes on to talk about the reasons why Commissioners tend to be elected for life, which includes things like huge, gerrymandered precincts – as the article says, the precincts are large enough to be the 10th through 13th most populous cities in America – and sizable campaign war chests, built in no small part on the generosity of those who do business with the county. I just want to point out that we could, if we wanted to, do something about this. We could create more precincts; it would take an amendment to the state constitution, but it could be done. I at least don’t understand why we have eight Constable/Justice of the Peace precincts but only four Commissioners Court precincts. We could beef up the ethics laws, more strictly limit campaign finance contributions, and provide a public funding source for Commissioners Court candidates. We could impose term limits on Commissioners. I don’t favor term limits as a matter of philosophy, but it’s ridiculous that City of Houston officials can only serve six years in office while three of the four Commissioners were first elected 20 years ago or more. The point is, things don’t have to be as they’ve always been.

If you want to be even more radical, you might wonder why we organize our government in such an arbitrary fashion, based on lines on a map, which tend to lead to petty turf wars rather than solutions that benefit everyone. People in Houston are directly affected by decisions made outside of Houston, and vice versa. It’s very difficult to coordinate any kind of effort or project that transcends these boundaries, as we’ve seen with things like hurricane preparedness and mass transit. Maybe we ought to think in terms of the region rather than the city or the county, and see where that takes us.

And it wouldn’t be a story about the Court without a Houston-hating quote from Steve Radack:

“We have our names on stuff. It’s not tough to figure out who’s responsible,” Radack said. If a county park in Precinct 3 is dirty, he said, it is his fault. That direct relationship between elected official and services builds support, he said.

“Find someone at City Hall who will accept responsibility for anything,” Radack said.

That’s pretty rich coming from a guy whose first inclination is always to point a finger at someone else, but typical for the man. If it’s not in his precinct, it may as well not exist to him.

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