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Despite Public Outcry, Hidalgo Fast-Tracks Plan to Restructure Harris County Government

In a 3 to 2 party-line vote on Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court approved a proposal from Judge Lina Hidalgo to dramatically realign county government and grant expansive decision powers to an appointed administrator despite public outcry asking for more time to consider the consequences.

“We have enormous challenges in Harris County and the crux is we have to modernize our organizational structure,” said Hidalgo.

The new administrator will have an initial budget of $2 million and wield the authority to appoint and dismiss many employees, including department heads. One exception included is for department heads or positions that state law says must be appointed by commissioners court. In those cases, Hidalgo’s plan calls for the commissioner’s court to appoint, but on the recommendation of the county administrator.

Hidalgo’s motion to create the new office also immediately named current Budget Management Director David Berry to the post. He will continue to serve in both capacities until a replacement can be found for the budget management department.

Berry will be tasked with developing new organizational and reporting structures, and a transition plan, all to be presented to commissioners court for approval within 45 days. The reporting structure will not apply to elected officials, except “for the purposes of increasing coordination.” 

Only unveiled last Thursday, many speakers at Tuesday’s meeting scolded Hidalgo for not giving residents enough time to understand and consider the proposal.

Stacie Fairchild of the Houston Super Neighborhood Alliance said her organization was not aware of the plan until last Friday and said a 162-page study that recommended the change was not made available to them until Tuesday morning just before the vote.

“On behalf of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, I am asking you to table this item until fair and equitable public engagement can be done to educate our community about the impact of the study’s recommendations.”

The plan to reorganize the county came as a recommendation from PFM Consulting Group: an outside organization the county has paid more than $5 million to study the county and suggest changes.  Prior to working with Harris County, the group advised the City of Houston in 2017, and has provoked controversy since Managing Director David Eichenthal advocates for defunding police. 

Precinct 2 resident Sarah Casper said she had attempted to call both her commissioner and the county judge yesterday, but that neither office provided her with more information about the proposal.

Several residents told The Texan they too had repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to call Hidalgo’s office Tuesday morning. One woman said the phone rang for five minutes and then disconnected.  

Charles Blain of Urban Reform, a group advocating for conservative policy solutions, also urged Hidalgo to delay the decision.

“What you guys are doing today is considering pushing through a major restructuring of one the largest entities in the country with little public notice and little public input,” said Blain. “If you truly feel what you’re doing is right you wouldn’t rush this through and you would take the time to sell this to the people that you guys work for.”

Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2), a former Houston city council member, compared the proposed reorganization to Houston’s structure, saying, “There were times that I didn’t like the ‘strong mayor’ form of government because I didn’t think it gave my district substantial voice, but all I did was roll my sleeves up and work.” 

Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) downplayed concerns over removing accountability from the elected commissioners by comparing the new structure to that of Texas’ public school districts in which the appointed superintendent wields considerable authority to conduct district operations although there is an elected board of trustees. 

“I couldn’t imagine the school board running the school system and not having a chief of staff or the superintendent.”

Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) said he agreed with a comment from Ellis about the issue not being partisan.

“I think that whether or not we have a county administrator or not is one about control and power, not about whether it’s Republican or a Democrat at that time. I think it’s a power to the people issue.”

Cagle expressed concern about giving the new administrator “supreme chancellor-style powers,” and distancing commissioners from the electorate with another layer of bureaucracy.  

Prior to the commissioners’ vote, both the C Club of Houston and Houston Region Business Coalition (HRBC) released statements in opposition to the realignment. 

“The very essence of our current County government with five Commissioners and a County Judge works to promote proper representation across our diverse County,” wrote Kurt Hanson of C Club. “A completely redundant layer of bureaucracy will result in opaque closed doors sessions without controls or regulations.”

HRBC condemned the action as well, saying that “creating a County Administrator with minimal amount of transparency or robust public discussion can only be seen as a power grab by the Court’s majority to implement their agenda behind closed doors.”

Most of the speakers on the issue were in opposition, but those in support included Jason Grant of the International City/County Management Association, and Iris Gonzalez of the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience.

“A county administrator will ensure we’re all marching in the same direction, and make the commissioners court more impactful,” said Gonzalez.

As administrator, Berry is authorized to retain an “outside consultant to support transition planning and implementation, and to utilize authorized search firms to assist in recruiting key positions,” and to direct all county departments through the transition to realign management and reporting functions under his office.

Following the vote, Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) released a statement saying the court was “not interested in public input,” but vowed to continue to speak out for voters to address issues of crime, safety, and flood control.

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