By Julie Anderson
Some 140 members of Commissioners Court convened in Austin Jan. 10-13 for the Seminar for Newly Elected County Judges & Commissioners, where they earned 20.5 hours of continuing education credit.
The conference, sponsored by the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Texas Association of Counties, took a two-pronged educational approach providing officials with:
- a broad overview of the statutory responsibilities of the Commissioners Court; and
- practical advice from veteran officials ranging from effective leadership techniques to common pitfalls to avoid.
County Commissioners are required to complete 16 hours of continuing education per year. This four-day conference not only fulfilled this statutory mandate, but also met the Phase I requirements of a comprehensive educational program titled Commissioners Court Advanced Curriculum (CCAC). While Judges in attendance did not receive judicial education credit, they also completed the Phase 1 requirement of CCAC.
The four-day meeting, likened to a “jumping-off place” for new officials, covered a wide range of topics including the powers and duties of the Commissioners Court, public meetings, records management, conflicts of interest, leadership, litigation, indigent health, emergency management, purchasing, working with the Texas Legislature, county roads, and the county budget, to name a few.
Those presenting the classes, all seasoned in their respective topics, offered more than “book knowledge,” taking the opportunity to offer wisdom gleaned from years of experience.
New Officials Training – 25 Takeaways:
- The Texas County Commissioners Court is charged with conducting county business subject to the laws of the state.
- As a part of the State of Texas, the structures and duties of county government are set forth in the Texas Constitution. As an arm of the State, Texas counties can only do those actions that are specifically authorized by Texas law. Equally important, Texas counties must do those actions that are required by law.
- As long as you can tie an action back to a statute, you have implied authority.
- A county cannot expend public funds except through public service.
- Ask yourself:
- “Is this county business?”
- “How is this serving the public?”
- One Commissioner or Judge cannot bind the county. The Commissioners Court acts as a body.
- While Commissioners represent individual precincts, you are County
- Once in office, you make decisions that affect everyone in your county. Make the best decisions for your county as a whole.
- County Judges and Commissioners can only act through the meeting of the Commissioners Court, where the court members can only address those items on the agenda.
- Commissioners Court meetings require a quorum, which is three, except for the meeting setting the tax rate, when four out of five must be present and three must cast a vote.
- Learn to count to three. It takes three to get anything done, so learn to work with the other members of your Commissioners Court.
- Counting to three is important. Counting to four is even better. Counting to five (a 5-0 vote) is great.
- Don’t carry it forward. If you have a split vote, learn to live with it. Don’t hold a grudge, and move on.
- Respect your fellow members of the court, even when you are in the minority.
- The County Judge presides over the Commissioners Court meetings; the Judge is the presider, not the king.
- The County Judge puts together the agenda of the Commissioners Court meeting. However, every member of the court is entitled to put an item on the meeting agenda.
- The County Judge can participate in every vote, not just in the case of a tie.
- Commissioners Court meetings are open or public meetings, meaning members of the public have access to and may observe the meetings. This does not mean they are able to participate. The level of public participation, i.e. allowing the public to comment, is up to the individual Commissioners Court.
- Consider adopting rules of procedure, conduct, and decorum governing your Commissioners Court meetings, including guidelines for public participation. Make copies of these rules and the agenda available at every meeting.
- Every member of the Commissioners Court is required by law to complete a training course on the Texas Open Meetings Act within 90 days of assuming office. For more information, go to https://www.oag.state.tx.us/open/og_training.shtml.
- It is very important to understand how to communicate, when to communicate, and when not to communicate.
- Counties must conduct public hearings in certain instances, such as setting the county budget. The public is entitled to speak at public hearings.
- The Commissioners Court is responsible for setting the county budget and the county property tax rate.
- You have the power of the purse. You are the budget authority for the county. Do not underestimate that authority or responsibility
- The county budget is a policy statement and vision statement for your county.
- You affect every office in county government via your fiscal responsibilities.
- The decentralized nature of county government makes for a system where cooperation is necessary.
- Counties are partners with the State of Texas. The State of Texas is the senior partner, so establish a relationship with your senators and representatives.
- While you do control the budget, you do not control the everyday workings of the other offices in your county.
- Your fellow elected officials, i.e. tax assessor-collector, treasurer, clerks, are elected by the same constituency that elected you.
- The only people you hire and fire are those directly under your supervision.
- Your single largest expenditure is likely your county jail. The county jail is a dual responsibility. The sheriff is the keeper of the jail, while the Commissioners Court is tasked with ensuring a safe and suitable jail. Learn to work with your sheriff.
- Read the inspection reports from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, and walk along on at least one jail inspection.
- Judges are the public information officers for their counties. All members of Commissioners Courts may be asked to make comments in times of disaster. Be prepared to offer the following information:
- What happened.
- What is being done now.
- What is going to be done in the future
- What you would like the media to tell the public.
- Public roads are not county roads.
- You cannot do work on a private road.
- Counties are very restricted in their ordinance and land-use authority, currently limited to matters including subdivision regulations, road and drainage construction, regulation of sexually oriented business, septic tanks, certain floodplain development and airport zoning.
- The violation of purchasing laws can result in criminal penalties. Familiarize yourself with the purchasing laws and ask as many questions as necessary.
- When in doubt, bid it out.
- When constituents call with a concern or complaint, listen. Sometimes all they need to do is vent. On a related note, avoid “knee-jerk” responses.
- You are the government closest to the people.
- It’s okay to say, “I don’t know. But I will find out and get back to you,” or, “I cannot assist you in this matter, but I can point you to the right person.”
- You are never really off the record. Remember your manners, be polite, and always RSVP when you are invited to an event.
- Do everything as if everyone is watching, because everyone is.
- Obtain a copy of the Texas Local Government Code, available at http://store.westlaw.com/default.aspx or 1-800-344-5009.
Downloadable versions of the most current presentations, resources and materials from the seminar are available at www.lbj.utexas.edu/materials-county2017.