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What can the county do about ethics?

Maybe something. Maybe not. Who can tell?

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has proposed two ethics reforms he says are needed to improve transparency in county government, though Texas counties’ limited rule-making power may scuttle his plan.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously backed Ellis’ request to study how the county can establish mandatory registration of lobbyists and a blackout period for campaign contributions to elected officials from firms who seek or receive county contracts.

“We’re living in a time when public trust in government is shaken and everyday people are concerned about the undue influence of special interests,” Ellis said in a statement afterward. “We have an opportunity and obligation to strengthen public trust by reducing any appearance of or actual preferential treatment when it comes to how public dollars are spent.”

[…]

Ellis said the county needs an ethics commission to enforce any new rules. His vision, however, may be hamstrung by the limited ability Texas counties have to enact such policies. Unlike municipalities, which can establish their own rules and ordinances, counties only can follow the lead of the Legislature, Harris County First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said.

That limitation tied the hands of County Judge Ed Emmett, who established a task force that recommended a series of ethics reforms in 2009. Among them: creating an ethics committee, posting officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms online and ethics training for county employees.

The county attorney at the time concluded Commissioners Court lacked the authority to act on many of the proposals. The ethics committee only met twice before the county attorney said state law prevented the body from meeting confidentially, granting protection to whistleblowers or having the authority to supervise elected officials or their departments.

Some county ethics rules remain in place. Elected officials still must complete the disclosure forms, and any county employee involved in negotiating contracts with vendors must declare conflicts of interest. Commissioners Court members often disclose during meetings why they are abstaining from a vote, though written conflict of interest forms are not filed with the district clerk until afterward.

Soard said the Legislature has not given counties any new powers to establish ethics rules in the decade since Emmett tried, though El Paso and Montgomery counties sought and received special permission from state lawmakers to set up their own ethics commissions. Harris County could try a similar approach, Soard suggested, though the Legislature will not return to Austin for a regular session until 2021.

“We’re certainly working with the commissioners to see what the county can do,” Soard said.

I’m sure I’ve been salty on this blog about past attempts to improve ethics in Harris County. In retrospect, the lack of authority as granted by the state seems obvious. Maybe we’ll have better luck this time, but I agree that getting a bill passed in the Lege would help. There’s always 2021.

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One Comment

  1. Brick Tamland says:

    Is there really no source of authority that the county can use to establish ethics rules? Harris County officials have a habit of declaring they don’t have authority to do things instead of admitting they don’t want to do anything about an issue because it would be detrimental to their interests.

    I’m also skeptical of any opinion from Vince Ryan’s office regarding campaign ethics given his office’s frequent insistence that the county employ outside counsel who just happen to be his biggest donors.