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Two views of county government

There was an interesting quasi-point/counterpoint in the Sunday op-eds between County Judge Ed Emmett and County Attorney Vince Ryan. I say “quasi” because it’s not really clear they were debating each other, but they were both talking about county government and how it works. Here’s Judge Emmett‘s piece.

In the private sector, major companies frequently hire consulting firms to review their organization, vision and strategy and to recommend actions to help lead the companies into the future. Governments sometime do the same. Harris County government has not been fundamentally reorganized in many years — years that have seen startling advances in technology, public transparency and financial management.

Harris County could seek the advice of a major consulting firm to help us retool the way we work to be more modern, efficient and open in the way we do business. But I believe a better idea is to tap into the rich talent pool that exists right here. A blue ribbon task force made up of business leaders (active or retired), academics and community leaders could bring a fresh perspective and help us improve our organization, policies and practices. People inside government, particularly those who have been in place a long time, tend to have limited vision when it comes to the need for change. A task force could help guide us on Commissioners Court through the development of a reorganization plan and a plan for continuity of government.

Given the difficult current financial times, part of any county government reorganization must be a thorough analysis of the budget process and the way tax dollars are spent. Harris County has had sound financial approaches during many years of an expanding tax base. Continuing that policy may or may not yield positive results going forward. Zero-based budgeting and a more unified system of providing county services would likely stretch our tax dollars.

A reorganization study also could provide a unique opportunity to discuss coordinating and perhaps merging local government services with the city of Houston and other jurisdictions. Such steps already have been taken with libraries, for example, but law enforcement, public health, a new forensics center and a joint processing center all present great opportunities to save money and increase efficiency.

I don’t have any particular quibble with any of this. I’d like to see the city and county work together on more things as well, though I’d say we already know what the main obstacle is. Maybe some fancypants consultant can help us figure out a way around that, but if not I don’t know that this would be worth it. And if you’re going to suggest reorganization, I’d recommend skipping the business leaders and instead invite the ordinary employees who have survived their efforts over the years to discuss how these things really go. Or save some time and just study the Dilbert canon, which will tell you most if not all of what you need to know.

Vince Ryan‘s response to Emmett is a bit odd in that Emmett never directly addressed Ryan, and Ryan seems to be defending his office more than advocating a particular viewpoint.

Last month, the Houston Chronicle published an editorial endorsing Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s call to restructure county government, citing problems in the manner in which Harris County operates. Although these concerns are legitimate, Emmett’s characterizations imply that the situation is out of control and has been continuing without any significant effort to address the issues raised. These characterizations are not correct.

County government consists of a number of individually elected and appointed officials who each serve as a check and balance on one another. While the county attorney is elected directly by the people, the county auditor is appointed by a committee of the Harris County district judges. Both the county auditor and the county attorney have responsibilities to see that the operation of county government is according to law and within ethical boundaries.

Problems concerning the county’s financial services were first reported to our office more than two years ago. We immediately launched an investigation of the people involved and of the depth of the problems. Hundreds of hours were spent over the next several months by the County Attorney’s Office, the county auditor and outside experts sifting through complicated financial records and interviewing witnesses. Many problems were uncovered. When evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing was uncovered, this information was promptly reported and relayed to the District Attorney’s Office. Subsequently, information concerning these problems was reported to the federal government, resulting in the investigation of some of the issues by the FBI.

Again, I have no particular quibble here. There’s not really anything to be quibbled with. I gather Ryan may be feeling a tad bit defensive after being called out by Emmett for the Greenberg Traurig hiring; he gets to that later in the piece. I don’t know what there is to add.

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  1. joshua bullard says:

    I spoke with judge emmett in october of 2010,from the on-set i did in fact establish that he was trying to bring the court up to a more modern operation.alot of people may not know this but,commisioners court kept real life elevator operaters in the original civil courthouse all the way up to 2001 or 2002,if my memory serves me correctly.when i spoke with judge emmett i suspected he was just giving me the usual political peanut butter sandwich plate-my assumptions where wrong entirelly.i think i will just go on my merry way,and let the judge continue to do the fastastic job i originally doubted he would.
    respectfully submitted joshua bullard

  2. Al Clarke says:

    I think the main issue being debated is Harrison, the former county employee, who was involved in bogus expense reporting and “wheelin’ and dealin’ ” with major private providers involved with county financial ratings and bond deals. Also the succession of Dick Raycraft, long-time County Budget Officer, and Raycraft’s supervision (or lack of supervision) of his employee Harrison. County Attorney Vince Ryan seems to suggest that his office investigated and helped “get rid of” Harrison, but Harrison was just transferred within the Budget Office and allowed to retire. I wish I could be “gotten rid of” by being allowed to retire. If such allegations were made against someone employed in the private sector he/she would have been terminated and criminal charges likely immediately pursued.
    County Judge Emmett wants all county departments to justify every position they currently have, their mission, and all related expenses, rather than giving each dept the same funds next year that they received this year as a starting point for budget development. I concur that such a review from the ground up is needed and that current department heads whether elected or appointed cannot do such a review fairly and correctly.
    For example, why does Harris County have a Road and Bridge department in each Commissioners’ precinct? Duplication of services and fragmented bidding, poor service delivery and higher costs from extra employees and administrators occurs with such organization. Same can be said for each Commissioner having separate Parks Dept, and countless other duplicative depts. It is time to consolidate such operations across all four precincts reducing staff and administrators while improving services, increasing efficiency, and eliminating the political “give away”and rewards such contracts have become for elected Commissioners.
    Additionally, many county services could be eliminated or consolidated or privatized. For example, many counties across Texas have abolished the office of Treasurer and Harris County was prepared to do such until Orlando Sanchez, a Republican, was elected County Treasurer. Now there seems to be a need for a Traesurer among our County leaders. This position is not necessary and should be eliminated thereby offering savings to the taxpayers with no loss in services or productivity. An example of consolidation has already been provided by merging each Commissioners’ fiefdom departments, but Commissioners would never vote for such. Criminal justice services are ripe for consolidation because many departments and agencies have duplicative services and seldom, if ever, are reviewed regarding results. A central booking facility paid for by both the City of Houston and Harris County is a excellent example of consolidating a function that would save taxpayers money, reduce duplicative services, and be much more efficient. Implementing technology within the criminal justice system is another method of reducing costs, improving services, increasing efficiency, and, in the long run is much cheaper than just adding employees with fringe benefits year after year after year. Privatization of many county services seems reasonable and appropriate; certainly it is worth considering and evaluating. For example, privatization of healthcare services in the county jails and city jails could offer better care, reduce litigation costs, and is occurring throughout the nation with good success. Privatization could prove effective in employee hiring (Human Resources) which would eliminate or greatly reduce patronage hiring and “back room deals” to take care of family, friends, and political allies. An example of Harris County “double speak” regarding hiring follows:
    Harris County had a “hiring freeze” in place at the time of last year’s elections, yet defeated and incumbent District Clerk Loren Jackson, a Democrat, was immediately hired by Sheriff Adrian Garcia, a Democrat, despite a hiring freeze. Jackson moved into a very high paying position within the Sheriff’s Office despite a hiring freeze. Political favor? I say “Yes”. The same occurred with staff in defeated incumbent Sylvia Garcia’s office despite a county wide hiring freeze. Again, political favor? I say “Yes”. Such actions occur because the County’s Human Resources Department allow such and County Commissioners and elected officials “take care” of their own…..patronage at work in the workplace.
    Outside evaluation, assessment and recommendations must be obtained in order for Harris County government to reduce costs, deliver quality services, redefine department missions and roles, and to evaluate effectiveness. Our elected and appointed leaders will not reform their respective empires…………….what county official will appear before Commissioners Court and seek a significant reduction in staff to deliver services to the public? It ain’t happening!!
    If County Judge Emmett is indeed serious about reviewing the mission, costs, actual results and productivity of County government then I wholeheartedly support his effort. However, if this is just a study for the sake of saying one has been done with no intent to follow recommendations and make reforms, then we will have “wasted our money and time”. Perhaps, if reform efforts are not undertaken then the voters should encourage reform by selecting new elected officials who can be more open to review, introspection, and analysis.
    Remember the following:
    County Judge Ed Emmett has been in office since March 2007.
    County Commissioner El Franco Lee has been in office since 1985 – over 2 decades.
    County Commissioner Steve Radack has been in office since 1988 – pver 2 decades.
    County Commissioner Jerry Eversole has been in office since 1991 – over 2 decades.
    County Commissioner Jack Morman just elected in January 2011.
    County Budget Office Dick Raycraft has been a county employee for 43 years – over 4 decades.
    The majority of the above officials (elected and appointed) are not likely to be open to reform, change and innovation because they have vested interest in the dynasties each has built and controls.
    I know some who view this post will think I am proposing “out with the old and in with the new”, but that is not what is being suggested at all. Rather, it is time for Harris County government to do what every business often does, as Judge Emmett proposed, and that is to take a long, hard, and perhaps painful look at what it does, how it does it, what it should do, and how to get such done efficiently, effectively, and with good stewardship.
    I salute County Judge Emmett for his call for reform and I wish him luck in getting support for this effort, and even more luck in implementing any recommendations such a study or analysis might propose. This is long overdue.