There was an interesting quasi-point/counterpoint in the Sunday op-eds between County Judge Ed Emmett and County Attorney Vince Ryan. I say “quasi” because it’s not really clear they were debating each other, but they were both talking about county government and how it works. Here’s Judge Emmett‘s piece.
In the private sector, major companies frequently hire consulting firms to review their organization, vision and strategy and to recommend actions to help lead the companies into the future. Governments sometime do the same. Harris County government has not been fundamentally reorganized in many years — years that have seen startling advances in technology, public transparency and financial management.
Harris County could seek the advice of a major consulting firm to help us retool the way we work to be more modern, efficient and open in the way we do business. But I believe a better idea is to tap into the rich talent pool that exists right here. A blue ribbon task force made up of business leaders (active or retired), academics and community leaders could bring a fresh perspective and help us improve our organization, policies and practices. People inside government, particularly those who have been in place a long time, tend to have limited vision when it comes to the need for change. A task force could help guide us on Commissioners Court through the development of a reorganization plan and a plan for continuity of government.
Given the difficult current financial times, part of any county government reorganization must be a thorough analysis of the budget process and the way tax dollars are spent. Harris County has had sound financial approaches during many years of an expanding tax base. Continuing that policy may or may not yield positive results going forward. Zero-based budgeting and a more unified system of providing county services would likely stretch our tax dollars.
A reorganization study also could provide a unique opportunity to discuss coordinating and perhaps merging local government services with the city of Houston and other jurisdictions. Such steps already have been taken with libraries, for example, but law enforcement, public health, a new forensics center and a joint processing center all present great opportunities to save money and increase efficiency.
I don’t have any particular quibble with any of this. I’d like to see the city and county work together on more things as well, though I’d say we already know what the main obstacle is. Maybe some fancypants consultant can help us figure out a way around that, but if not I don’t know that this would be worth it. And if you’re going to suggest reorganization, I’d recommend skipping the business leaders and instead invite the ordinary employees who have survived their efforts over the years to discuss how these things really go. Or save some time and just study the Dilbert canon, which will tell you most if not all of what you need to know.
Vince Ryan‘s response to Emmett is a bit odd in that Emmett never directly addressed Ryan, and Ryan seems to be defending his office more than advocating a particular viewpoint.
Last month, the Houston Chronicle published an editorial endorsing Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s call to restructure county government, citing problems in the manner in which Harris County operates. Although these concerns are legitimate, Emmett’s characterizations imply that the situation is out of control and has been continuing without any significant effort to address the issues raised. These characterizations are not correct.
County government consists of a number of individually elected and appointed officials who each serve as a check and balance on one another. While the county attorney is elected directly by the people, the county auditor is appointed by a committee of the Harris County district judges. Both the county auditor and the county attorney have responsibilities to see that the operation of county government is according to law and within ethical boundaries.
Problems concerning the county’s financial services were first reported to our office more than two years ago. We immediately launched an investigation of the people involved and of the depth of the problems. Hundreds of hours were spent over the next several months by the County Attorney’s Office, the county auditor and outside experts sifting through complicated financial records and interviewing witnesses. Many problems were uncovered. When evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing was uncovered, this information was promptly reported and relayed to the District Attorney’s Office. Subsequently, information concerning these problems was reported to the federal government, resulting in the investigation of some of the issues by the FBI.
Again, I have no particular quibble here. There’s not really anything to be quibbled with. I gather Ryan may be feeling a tad bit defensive after being called out by Emmett for the Greenberg Traurig hiring; he gets to that later in the piece. I don’t know what there is to add.