Monday, October 31, 2011

Commissioner's court, city council, "mine's bigger", and what we can do about it

Charles has an interesting rant on the friction that seems to perpetually exist, in varying degree, between the City of Houston and the County of Harris.

A few months ago, I was invited to speak at a Rotary breakfast. I talked about the importance of paying attention to local government, which I said has a much greater impact on your daily life than what goes on in DC but which tends to get less scrutiny. Someone asked me a question about waste, and I told him that if you had to design a government structure for the Houston region from scratch, you’d never come up with what we actually have. You’d want something more broadly focused, with less duplication and not as hindered by arbitrary boundaries. Something like that would surely be better able to solve regional issues, and be much less prone to the kind of penny ante pissing matches that we’re so used to around here.

We’re not going to get the chance to reinvent our government structure, of course. But that doesn’t mean I can’t think about doing things differently. And the question I find myself asking is why should Houston be a part of Harris County? As a taxpayer in the city of Houston, it’s hard for me to see what benefit I get from that arrangement. They don’t build roads that I drive on, Sheriff’s deputies don’t patrol my neighborhood, and so on. More to the point, there’s no one on Commissioners Court that gives a damn about the city of Houston, and three fourths of their combined budget is controlled by people who are unaccountable to me or anyone else electorally. So why should we put up with this? Why not get out?

Chuck knows he's spitballing and so do the rest of us. First of all, much of the antagonism comes about because of all of the conservatives on commissioner's court bumping up against all the libruls on city council. And commissioners are, for the most part, not really held accountable by the voters -- Sylvia Garcia being a recent exception -- and thus the corruptive influence of money combined with what is essentially a lifetime job turns it into a good old boy's club. (Sorry, El Franco.)

Houston resolved some of these character issues with term limits and a cap on campaign contributions some years ago. Don't expect the court to ever do anything that radical.

With about 4 million residents of Harris County compared to roughly 2 million Houstonians, and the proportion of county voters slightly skewed to the GOP, it really shouldn't be a surprise about how much influence those "unincorporated-area" voters have on county elections -- not just commissioners but judges and executive offices like county clerk and tax assessor/collector. Bellaire and West U Place and Pasadena may have a few more Democratic voters but the Republicans in Jersey Village, Katy, Webster, Baytown and Humble even things out. Those folks out in the sticks sure do turn out the vote. Must be those excellent bridges and roads providing easy access to the polls.

I don't expect redistricted precinct maps to help this phenomenon. It wouldn't matter if we threw the whole thing out and started over with a map that more closely approximated community interests -- where and how people live, instead of the woefully gerrymandered precincts now. Say for example there was a precinct roughly inside the Loop, another couple consisting of everything outside the Loop but inside the Beltway, and then one for everybody else in the boonies. We would still have 3 TeaBaggers and one Democrat, very likely an African-American. Just like now.

That leaves County Judge, who among his other imperial duties gets to fill the rare vacancy on commissioner's court unilaterally. He alone picks the replacement for everybody, including himself (with the voters eventually confirming his selection). That's where IMHO the most emphasis for change should be focused each election cycle. But even if someone with the money and the electoral base -- like say, Rodney Ellis -- decided to run for the top job, and then somehow managed to get elected, he'd still have to push a reform agenda through with a Republican vote.

So then the most reachable goal to implement reform becomes electing a Democratic county judge and replacing a Republican county commissioner. Still a pretty tall order when we can't get Democrats to come back and vote in off-presidential years.

Nedless to say I just don't see any of this happening in my most feverish of dreams. Which is why the most powerful agent of change on Commissioner's Court winds up being ... Wayne Dolcefino. And that begs the question: what's really the difference between Cactus Jack Cagle and Jerry Eversole besides a criminal record?

Given a little time, that probably evens up too.

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