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Commissioners Court tries again on ethics reform

They meet today to try to get something done.

After months of political maneuvering, County Judge Ed Emmett is asking commissioners to approve a series of ethics reforms. They include the voluntary registration of lobbyists, online posting of officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms and the adoption of a county statement of ethics.

The proposals are weaker than those recommended by an ethics task force assembled by Emmett last year. But even they have been met with skepticism from commissioners.

The continued infighting raises the question of whether any progress will be made on ethics, a centerpiece of Emmett’s election campaign last year after a series of controversies involving county officials. Adding to doubts was Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of a bill, pushed by Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, that would have required a waiting period before former Harris County employees could lobby the county.

Perry said he vetoed the bill because its approach was “piecemeal” and applied only to Harris County rather than the whole state.

Garcia could not be reached for comment Monday.

I did speak to Joe Stinebaker, Judge Emmett’s director of communications, yesterday, and I asked him about Perry’s veto of HB2468. He told me that as this was Commissioner Garcia’s bill, Judge Emmett didn’t have a comment on the veto, and that they were working on getting the reforms that didn’t require legislative action passed. Fair enough.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he would “be interested what the county attorney has to say about” Emmett’s proposals.

County Attorney Vince Ryan said Monday that the ethics measures differ from those that Ryan reviewed earlier at Emmett’s request.
“His proposals are dissimilar enough that, if asked, we will need to review them again,” Ryan said. “We just need to review them again in light of any action the legislature may have taken.”

A review by the county attorney undoubtedly would stall the reforms. Emmett, however, maintained no further study is needed. He noted that Ryan has reviewed the proposals before and that they were written in accordance with what Ryan previously said was appropriate.

“I think he must not have read them because they are exactly what has been put forward before,” the county judge said.

Emmett added that Ryan also campaigned on ethics reform and noted that the county attorney does not have a vote on the matter.

“This is a decision for Commissioners Court, not the county attorney,” Emmett said. “This has been kicking around for a year almost. Let’s talk about this out in the open, but let’s not kick this back to the county attorney.”

I’ve been plenty snarky about this, but I’m feeling a little sympathetic to Judge Emmett right about now. Maybe he should consider working to replace Commissioners who aren’t on board with him. If Jerry Eversole really is out of the picture for next year, that would be a good opportunity to change the balance to one that’s more favorable to ethics reform. Even if this matter is resolved by then, it would be worth doing that.

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