County Government Explained

By Joe Stinebaker

As a county commissioner in Loving County, Harlan Hopper represents maybe 30 or 40 constituents, mostly family and neighbors working the oil fields or ranches of rural West Texas.

On the other side of this vast state, Harris County Commissioner R. Jack Cagle represents more people than 10 governors – about 1.3 million people living in the nation’s third-largest county.

And while Loving and Harris counties have little in common, one thing they share is their “one size fits all” form of Texas county government. Four county commissioners. One county judge. A treasurer, a tax collector, a sheriff, and a county clerk.

In Loving County, people pretty well understand what their county government does and how it works. That’s largely because at one time or another, most residents there have either lived with a county official or been one. And this is a small county after all (population ~ 160), so there really isn’t all that much county officials need to do.

But 600 miles to the east, in the sound and the fury of Harris County, there’s ALWAYS something that needs doing. With nearly 5 million residents, Harris County is going places, or just coming back. Work crews are shoring up flood control projects, doctors and nurses are saving lives at county hospitals, and thousands of sheriff’s and constable’s deputies are protecting lives out on the streets.

So, in all that craziness, perhaps we can be forgiven if we’re not entirely familiar with the name of our district clerk or with what our county treasurer does.

A little more than half of Harris County’s residents live in incorporated cities – Houston, Pasadena, Humble, and the like – and rely on those cities for many of their local government services. But more than 2 million others live in unincorporated Harris County, meaning the county is their only local government.

Regardless of whether they live inside or outside a city, though, all Harris County residents rely on the county to provide their courthouses, public hospitals, jails, and flood control. Despite providing these crucial and seemingly high-profile services, county government sometimes slips under the public radar. Most major news outlets devote more time and resources to coverage of Houston city government. As a result, many county residents don’t know how their county government works or who is responsible for keeping such a huge metropolitan area moving.

The Texas Constitution doesn’t make it any easier. The state’s founders set up county government as a branch of state government, run by a “commissioners court” composed of five elected officials – a county judge and four commissioners. Despite the titles, the commissioners court isn’t really a court, and many county judges exercise virtually no judicial responsibilities; in fact, the last two Harris County “judges” haven’t even been lawyers.

Now that they had the vernacular all in a proper kerfuffle, our state founders decided to take this unique amalgam and impose it on all 254 counties in the state, regardless of size. As a result, you get inequities such as the size of commissioners Cagle and Hopper’s constituencies.

Every Texan has two representatives in county government, their commissioner (elected by precinct) and their county judge (elected countywide). Despite serving as the presiding officer of Commissioners Court, urban county judges generally have less responsibility, smaller budgets, and fewer staff than do commissioners, who are typically responsible for building and maintaining county roads, bridges, parks, and many neighborhood services.

State law also greatly restricts county government’s authority. While the five members of Commissioners Courts are responsible for creating policy, setting tax rates, awarding contracts, and budgeting for county departments, they are largely barred from passing local ordinances unless explicitly permitted in advance by state law.

Like many other political bodies, Harris County Commissioners Court members are elected through partisan elections. Three members – Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis (Precinct 1) and Adrian Garcia (Precinct 2) – are Democrats; commissioners Steve Radack (Precinct 3) and Cagle (Precinct 4) are Republicans.

Controversial issues trigger volumes of inquiries to Commissioner Cagle’s office about how county residents can make their voices heard at Commissioners Court. Commissioner Cagle encourages his constituents to express their views by contacting him at service@hcp4.net or calling 832-927-4444. And by law, Commissioners Court meetings are public, so anyone may attend. Those wishing to speak before Commissioners Court are asked to complete the “Appearance Request Form” in the Budget Management Office at 1001 Preston, Suite 500, in downtown Houston or submit their request online at appearancerequest.harriscountytx.gov prior to Commissioners Court. Alternatively, speakers may report to the lectern outside the Commissioners Courtroom on the ninth floor of the Harris County Administration Building at 1001 Preston St., Suite 934, in downtown Houston. Speakers are generally allowed three minutes when speaking on a topic within the agenda or one minute on topics not on the agenda.

In the COVID era, however, Harris County has had to make some adjustments. Since March 24, all Commissioners Court meetings have been “virtual,” with each of the five members attending by video from satellite locations. County officials have gone to great lengths to ensure that these meetings function as closely as possible to pre-COVID “normal.”

In addition to the county’s online streaming of court meetings at www.harriscountytx.gov/Government/Court-Agenda/Court-Videos, Commissioner Cagle’s office also livestreams court meetings from his official Facebook page at facebook.com/HCPrecinct4. Cagle’s Facebook page also allows viewers to comment on the proceedings online.

Although these online meetings have resulted in numerous instances of the now-familiar refrain of “You’re muted!”, the meetings have generally been trouble-free. Much of the credit for that goes to Lucinda Silva, the county’s director of administrative services, who is responsible for coordinating as many as 70-75 telephone call-ins from constituents wishing to address the court throughout the meeting.

 

BY THE NUMBERS:

1/1/2019 Population Estimates

City of Houston  – 2,237,300

Other Cities –           498,300

Unincorporated –  2,064,400

TOTAL                       4,800,000

Source: Harris County Budget Office