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Charles Bacarisse

Interview with Loren Jackson

District Clerk Loren Jackson

Next up is Loren Jackson, who is finishing up the unexpired term of Harris County District Clerk that he won in 2008 after incumbent District Clerk Charles Bacarisse resigned to run in the GOP primary for County Judge. Jackson has been a whirlwind of activity in the HCDC’s office, swiftly implementing major upgrades to the Clerk’s website, and being widely lauded for that work. He’s also responsible for bringing WiFi to the Jury Assembly room. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

District Clerk primary overview

There’s one race on the ballot that features an incumbent countywide Democrat in a non-judicial office, and that’s Harris County District Clerk, where Loren Jackson is running for a four-year term after being elected to complete Charles Bacarisse’ unexpired term. This Chron story is about the two Republicans who are vying to replace him. Frankly, neither sounds like all that serious a candidate to me, but you can go read the story and decide for yourself. And once you’ve done that, go read Mark Bennett on why you should support Loren Jackson in November regardless of who gets nominated to oppose him.

Tax cuts have consequences

We’re all familiar with the financial constraints that the city of Houston is operating under. Harris County is experiencing similar problems.

“As best we can tell appraisals are going to be flat, if not down a little, so that means we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

Every Harris County department and agency is preparing for budget cuts heading into the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which begins in March.

11 News obtained a copy of the targeted cuts — and the worst-case scenarios are steep.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office may have to trim as much as 16 percent of its budget. The eight Constable precincts may have cut as much as 13 percent of theirs.

The worst-case scenarios — and every option is on the table — range from reassigning personnel, to cutting hours of operation, to rolling back salaries or to laying off county workers.

“Even if we stay flat we’ve all gotten, frankly, really comfortable with everything growing, growing, growing over the years,” said Emmett. “And we can’t do that anymore.”

We don’t know yet how bad the situation is, but we do know this: Back in 2007, at the urging of Judge Emmett, Commissioners Court cut the property tax rate by a penny. This tax cut, which saved a homeowner with a house valued at $161,000 a whopping $12 annually but saved corporations many thousands of dollars, was opposed by County Budget Director Dick Raycraft because of the loss in revenue the County would experience, which he believed we would some day need. How much revenue are we talking? Twenty-five million dollars a year, which I’d guess would cover the cost of however many Sheriffs and Constable deputies we may wind up laying off. On the bright side, it could have been worse. Emmett’s opponent in the 2008 Republican primary, Charles Bacarisse, wanted to cut the rate by five cents. That would have saved our average homeowner $58 a year, while depriving the county of $125 million a year in revenue. Imagine how many layoffs we’d have to make to cover that. Former Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt was pushing for a cut of about three and a half cents, or about $90 million a year. Does that look affordable now?

Judge Emmett is right, we’ve been comfortable with the idea that our revenues always grow. One of the inevitable consequences of that is the clamoring for tax cuts by irresponsible financial stewards like Bacarisse and Bettencourt, who don’t take seriously the idea that it wouldn’t take much of a decline in rate of that growth – never mind an actual leveling off, or some negative growth – to have a devastating effect on the budget. Maybe they didn’t think it could happen, I don’t know. What I do know is that nobody is going to call for that one cent reduction to be rolled back, because we just don’t do that sort of thing. I can only hope the next time someone calls for an equally irresponsible reduction in the tax rate on the grounds that whatever rate of growth we’re experiencing will be how it is forever, we remember what happened the last time we did that.

Bacarisse, too

Rick Casey jumps on the Ed Johnson bandwagon, and he starts off with the information that former District Clerk Charles Bacarisse was doing the same kind of moonlighting as Johnson was.

Bacarisse hired out as a $4,500-a-month consultant to a courier service and a company that served court papers on parents who failed to make child-support payments.

Apparently, the $135,000 a year we paid him wasn’t enough.

Bacarisse said there was nothing unethical about the arrangement, but a competing process server said she had turned down his offer (for a price) to help her by recommending her to lawyers who need those services.

He denied it, but the sense lingered that we had a district clerk who was on the take.

I have more sympathy for Ed Johnson. He has to get by on the $85,092 we taxpayers give him as associate voter registrar at the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office.

I’m sure this was public knowledge at some point, but I either never saw it or I’d forgotten it. If nothing else, you’d think that the extra money on top of the taxpayer-funded salary would be enough to frost a lot of people. I mean, $54K a year ($4,500 a month) is a pretty decent income, especially for what was surely part-time work. A similar arrangement in the private sector would likely be grounds for termination.

As for Johnson, Casey makes the someday-the-other-team-will-be-in-charge counter to Vasquez’s defense of Johnson, then notes that Harris County isn’t like the other counties.

Let’s do like Bexar and Dallas counties and set up a non-partisan office to handle voter registration and elections.

Chapter 31 of the Texas Election Code makes it easy. Commissioners Court simply has to vote to set up a county election commission, made up of the county judge, the county clerk, the tax assessor-collector and the county chairs of the political parties.

Together, they hire an election administrator and give him or her a budget to handle voter registration and to conduct elections.

This is a bit more rational than having the tax assessor-collector do the registration, which fell to that office only because it collected the poll tax that was then considered useful in keeping irresponsible poor people from voting.

If we had that law, the moonlighting that Vasquez thinks is perfectly acceptable could send Johnson to jail for a year.

The law makes it a Class A misdemeanor for an elections administrator or any full-time staff member in a county of more than a million if he “makes a political contribution … or publicly supports or opposes a candidate for public office or a measure to be voted on at an election.”

So, Leo, don’t you think that if the Legislature says it’s a crime for a nonpartisan voter registrar to support candidates, it might be a good policy for you to prohibit it as well?

Separating out the voter registration function from the Tax Assessor’s office is an idea that’s come up before, and would be meritorious even without the politicization of the current setup. I don’t sense any movement to make it happen, however, so the next best thing is a Tax Assessor’s office that actually tries to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It’s not so much to ask, is it?

District Clerk update

Nice article in Texas Lawyer about what’s been going on in the Harris County District Clerk’s office under Loren Jackson.

Lawyers handling civil suits in Harris County district courts will soon have fewer excuses for missing a court hearing.

On Jan. 17, the Harris County District Clerk’s Office began testing an automated docketing feature that sends an e-mail to lawyers each weekend with a listing of all of their court hearings for the next week. By clicking on links in the e-mail, the lawyers have online access to docket information and all of the documents filed in the suit, which can help them prepare at home for their hearings.

The new automated docketing feature is one of several online-access additions the clerk’s office plans to launch in May or June. Significantly, District Clerk Loren Jackson says, the office also plans to offer searchable online access to criminal cases, including links to some documents such as indictments and judgments.

Jackson, a Democrat who defeated Republican Theresa Chang in the November 2008 election, says he’s doing his best to fulfill a campaign pledge to use technology to save people a trip to the courthouse.

“I want to make those records accessible. I feel very strongly about that,” says Jackson, who was a trial lawyer at McLeod, Alexander, Powel & Apffel in Houston before he was elected as district clerk. “That’s the reason I ran.”

Jackson, who was sworn in on Nov. 18, 2008, says his information technology department started testing the automated docketing feature a few weeks ago with a group of about 15 to 18 lawyers who mostly do civil work. The response from most of the lawyers in the test group has been favorable, he says.

“It’s fantastic, it’s innovative and it’s going to be an asset to every lawyer who has business in Harris County,” says Randall Sorrels, a partner in Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels & Friend who is one of the lawyers in the test group.

Sorrels says that after he received his e-mail on a recent Saturday, he saw what he had coming up on Monday, and read the court documents from home.

“I was able to go into the office and put my hand on the documents in the file quicker because I knew exactly what I was looking for,” Sorrels says.

Sounds good to me. There’s more at the link, so check it out. Thanks to David Ortez for the link.