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Endorsement watch: First, reform the office

The Chron has almost as much to say about the office of Constable as it does about the candidates for Constable that they prefer.

Harris County needs to bring these law enforcement fiefdoms in line: Update precincts to equalize populations, reduce the competing bureaucracies, centralize the evidence room and put county law enforcement responsibility in the hands of the Sheriff’s Office. Harris County also needs to encourage unincorporated regions to directly fund their own law enforcement, whether through independent taxing districts or incorporation into formal cities.

It is time to return constables to their core duties. It will save taxpayer dollars, streamline government and knock out some of Harris County’s most problem-prone institutions.

Until that day, the Houston Chronicle editorial board makes the following endorsements in the contested races for Harris County constables.

Alan Rosen

Alan Rosen

Constable, Precinct 1: Alan Rosen

Since his election in 2012, Constable Alan Rosen has set the standard across the county for professionalism. While his precinct covers the western half of the Inner Loop and inside Beltway 8 from US 290 to Interstate 69, Rosen, 48, also has the countywide responsibility of serving juvenile and mental health warrants and of overseeing environmental investigations and animal cruelty cases. The Democratic incumbent has put a strong emphasis on training and community relationships. For example, when Houstonians marched downtown to protest police brutality and in support of racial equality, Rosen spoke to the crowd about the shared pain felt by communities and law enforcement officers.

Constable, Precinct 2: Christopher (Chris) Diaz

Our choice is the incumbent Christopher (Chris) Diaz, a former mayor and councilman in Jacinto City.

Constable, Precinct 3: Dan Webb

Incumbent Preinct 3 Constable Ken Jones is retiring and residents of Harris County would do well to cast their ballots for Republican Dan Webb, who currently holds a Department of Public Safety Commission as a Special Ranger and has 33 active-duty years of law enforcement service. Webb promises to fix the “good ol boy” promotion system at this precinct, which encompasses Channelview, Huffman, Crosby and Highlands and part of the Northshore communities.

Constable, Precinct 4: Jeff McGowen

If Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman, a Republican, worked in the private sector, he would have been fired for the evidence room scandal that occurred on his watch. This race should be viewed as an opportunity to remove a politician who has failed at a job and elect a replacement.

Voters in this massive precinct, which stretches across north Harris County from US 290 to Lake Houston, luckily have a qualified candidate in Jeff McGowen. The Democratic challenger is a 23-year veteran of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and is a strong advocate for community policing. In a meeting with the editorial board, McGowen, 46, offered proposals on improved training and greater coordination between precincts.

Constable, Precinct 6: Richard “Rick” Gonzales

Silvia TreviƱo isn’t asking anyone to call her madre, but students of Texas history should see reflections of Pa and Ma Ferguson – the unfortunate tag-team husband and wife Texas governors – in this race for Precinct 6 Constable.

Silvia’s husband, former Precinct 6 Constable Victor TreviƱo, is currently on probation for spending charity dollars at a Louisiana casino and faces newfound scrutiny for running an evidence room that had not been cleaned out or organized during his 26 years. Now Silvia is running to take her husband’s former position and defeated incumbent Precinct 6 Constable Heliodoro Martinez in the Democratic primary.

It is time to make a full break and elect someone new.

Constable, Precinct 8: Phil Sandlin

Incumbent Phil Sandlin is the right man to be constable of this southeast precinct that borders the Houston Ship Channel and includes NASA and many large chemical complexes.

I’m not going to argue with any of the Chron’s endorsement choices. There are a lot of less-than-inspiring candidates on the ballot, though thankfully my own Precinct 1 is in a much better place than it was four years ago. I think the Chron’s litany of complaints about the function and role of the Constable in Harris County deserves attention. We are going to be electing a new County Judge in 2018, and I hope we will also have a spirited race for County Commissioner Precinct 2. Both of these present an opportunity to have a discussion about the role of the Constables, among other things. If we want things to be different we can make it so, but it’s not going to happen without an active effort.

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5 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    The County cna encourage areas to incorporate, but if Houston doesn’t approve, it’s not going to happen. As a resident of the City of Houston, I would be opposed to any new incorporations in the ETJ.

    There’s no doubt the Constable’s offices need reforming, and a return to their actual Constitutional duties. While we are at it, let’s eliminate the contract deputy programs as well, which merely allow rich folks to have better law enforcement. if more deputies are necessary, they should be properly funded by County wide taxes, and assigned where the need is greatest. The rich folks can hire private security to patrol their neighborhoods.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    @Ross:

    My Mom lives in one of those “rich folks” neighborhoods that used to have contract deputies patrol for pay. They have switched to a private security company and have much better service. The security guards even captured a burglar some months ago.

    The pay-to-play contract deputy program actually benefited the surrounding areas, because they only guaranteed that the contract deputies would spend a certain percentage of time in the neighborhood they were getting paid to patrol. They also answered calls for service and did routine patrolling outside the neighborhood, even though the neighborhood paid the full nut for the deputy.

    I’d be just fine with eliminating the contract deputy program if you like, but don’t think that’s going to do anything to make the streets safer or make neighborhoods more equal. Those that can and want to stay safer will hire private security companies, and if Mom’s neighborhood is any indication, they will benefit from better service at lower cost. I know when I visit, I see the private security guys frequently. They talk to people, they get to know the neighborhood, and they respond quickly to calls for service, unlike the constables that got paid to do the same thing.

  3. Steve Houston says:

    Bill, Ross; the contract deputy system only charges neighborhoods 75% of the deputy’s base salary and nothing for any of the rest of the costs. Then, as evidenced by recent disclosures, many of the contracts do not get the full percentage they contracted but it rarely has anything at all to do with them answering calls for service or otherwise assisting the public.

    The flip side is that if a neighborhood has a strong security coordinator on the HOA or water board, a deputy will typically be in that neighborhood parked in the coordinator’s driveway until a call comes in, or tending to whatever specific things the coordinator tells him to. If the coordinator doesn’t get their way, the deputy constable is “reminded” by his supervisor how his position is tied to the contract so if the neighborhood threatens to change to the HCSO, he will be out of a job. Conversely, if the neighborhood contracts with the HCSO, they will threaten to move to the constable’s program and the deputy threatened with going back to the jail or some lousy assignment on a shift that messes with his extra jobs, you get the drill.

    As far as the private security company route, it’s wonderful that Bill’s mother is covered by a good company but it should be noted that most of the private companies out there make the worst a constable has to offer look amazing by comparison. The companies generally hire people that were rejected by all the government agencies, including constable positions, and pay them poorly. They still charge about the same but the bulk of the money goes to the company owner, often a retired deputy or police officer, who treats the staff as disposable as they are. Constables lack civil service so they do what they are told, the HCSO deputies have more civil service protection but soon find out that they will be transferred in a heartbeat if the HOA isn’t happy, and the security guards often enough become the crime wave when they are fired, knowing the neighborhood all too well when they are fired.

    But it isn’t just “rich” neighborhoods that hire them, a lot of modest income neighborhoods hire them too, the core level of law enforcement in the unincorporated areas of Harris County so low that unless you are involved in a true emergency, you are going to wait a lot longer for help than you probably should. A GF of mine waited for 9 hours and was told to come to the station or it would be the next day, further told that she should demand her neighborhood hire a deputy through the contract program. Of course if you hire HCSO, the constable deputies assigned to the area won’t touch your call and vice versa, but private security has no legal right to stop traffic or tend to half the core functions of law enforcement so weigh your options carefully.

    BTW, yes, I was a board member of an HOA years ago, serving as the security director who dealt with all these issues and more…much, much more, before I left the role behind me.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    I think the people in Mom’s neighborhood like the security company (they have K-9s) because the private security company is more in tune to the idea of customer service. Think Chik-fil-a. When there is a call for service to the security company, the guy is there literally within minutes. They put mileage on their cars by actually slowly driving each street, multiple times daily. They actually roll the window down and talk to the residents. They observe. They wave. In short, they apply community policing strategy. Of course, you’re right, they would be of limited help stopping speeders in a neighborhood. Mom lives on a cul-de-sac, so that really isn’t an issue for her and her neighbors. And I also agree that there are plenty of low bidder security companies who would offer lesser quality service. You get what you pay for, in this case. Bear in mind, this is all anecdotal based on what I have seen and what Mom and her neighbors have told me about the subject. I’m not privy to what the private patrols cost vs. what the constable patrols cost.

  5. Steve Houston says:

    Bill, as long as the neighborhood remains vigilante regarding the company, it will likely get the best possible customer service that way, at least from the better companies. But all it takes is one new board election to get a “I’ll save us a few bucks” type of crew replacing the company, often a “friend” of the new company who submits a great offer, the old company never looking back. And companies like this change hands too often to rely on them, you just have to understand what their limits are (I had one where the company representative told everyone present how they would stop traffic, demand to see ID from anyone they didn’t recognize, and so forth, get schooled by one of the retired deputies that lived in the subdivision; needless to say, they did not offer a bid).

    But in terms of costs, they were close enough to one another because the companies know exactly what the rates are from the county to shave off just enough, forgetting that price is only one factor in such decisions. To the best companies out there, more power to them but they are few and far between sadly enough.