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Commissioners Court approves ethics measures

It’s something.

The Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a slate of ethics reforms, placing new controls on money and influence in government for the first time in years.

After months of infighting and setbacks, the court unanimously and without discussion passed several measures including online posting of officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms, ethics training for all county employees and the voluntary registration of lobbyists.

County Judge Ed Emmett hailed the approval as a major stride toward increased accountability in county government. Emmett made ethics reform a centerpiece of his election campaign last year after controversies arose surrounding people with county connections.

“It’s a great first step,” Emmett said. “This sets out a good statement of principals, and I was glad to see a unanimous court move forward.”

Still, the measures passed are weaker than those recommended by a task force Emmett himself assembled last year. Emmett appointed the panel to assess the county’s ethics rules after the indictment of a former county department head, Mike Surface, and his business partner, Andrew Schatte. Their indictment followed concerns about Commissioner Jerry Eversole’s questionable campaign spending and a history of vague disclosures.

Emmett’s panel recommended the county create a board to investigate ethics complaints, require lobbyists to register. But enacting such reforms would have required approval from the state Legislature. Emmett instead decided to focus on what could be accomplished locally.

It’s a decent first step, but it can’t be all there is. Next time, there needs to be successful action in the Lege. I’m still dubious of Governor Perry’s claim about the constitutionality of ethics legislation that’s specific to Harris County, but if that is a concern, then let’s make sure a joint resolution gets passed so this can be voted on as a Constitutional amendment. Same thing for the other items that didn’t make it. Now that what could be accomplished locally has been accomplished, get the rest of it done in Austin. No excuses.

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