By Julie Anderson, Editor
“To offer my experience in strategic planning to other counties to assist them in formulating cohesiveness among their elected officials for the betterment of their respective counties.” – CJCAT President Patti Jones, Lubbock County Commissioner
Throughout 2013, County Progress visited with many of you about your professional goals and priorities. What drove you toward public service? Is it what you expected? What are the rewards and challenges that come with your job?
Tom Green County Commissioner Aubrey deCordova offered the following: “When the opportunity opened up to serve, I decided to get off the sideline and see if I could make a difference by running for office…I promised to use common sense in promoting growth and development without placing an undue burden on the taxpayer, and to be accountable.”
Former Yoakum County Commissioner and current Yoakum County Judge Jim Barron shared: “While I was still a student at Plains High School, my desire to be in a position to help others led me to begin considering a life in politics. It was then that I knew I would one day run for the office of County Commissioner.” When it comes to serving as Judge, “I have the unusual privilege of helping people through difficult circumstances as they come for probates, abuse and addictions. I am grateful that there is help through county government.”
Cherokee County Commissioner Byron Underwood, first vice president of the North & East Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association, entered politics “because I wanted to make a difference and serve my community. I’ve always wanted to be involved in anything that I thought was beneficial for our citizens (both young and senior), and I feel like you must jump in and set the example for others to follow.”
Lubbock County Commissioner Bill McCay, director with the West Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association, said Lubbock County continues “to work on finding new ways to do more with less in a county that has both urban and rural challenges.”
Do more with less. Make a difference. Serve. Improve communities. Each of the comments above is indeed a resolution.
Tis the season to renew these commitments or lend thought to new goals and priorities, whether personal or professional. When it comes to Commissioners Courts, the list practically creates itself.
Pursue My Continuing Education
As an arm of the state, Commissioners Courts have some pre-set goals – or mandates, rather. But it’s up to us to make them happen. For instance, January is a good time to plan your continuing education calendar. What conferences will you attend to earn your required hours?
Per Government Code Section 74.025, County Judges are required to earn 30 credit hours during their first year of office, and 16 credit hours for each 12-month reporting period following the first year in office. For additional information, including exemptions, see www.cca.courts.state.tx.us/rules/jerules/rules2006.doc. According to this document, “Instruction credit completed during any fiscal year in excess of the minimum number of hours required may be applied to the following fiscal year’s requirement.”
Per Local Government Code Section 81.0025, County Commissioners must earn 16 hours for each 12-month period in office; eight surplus hours may be carried from one 12-month period to the next.
The County Judges and Commissioner Association of Texas (CJCAT) is committed to providing a variety of educational opportunities, per Article II, Section 4 of the CJCAT Constitution: “This Association shall sponsor and co-sponsor educational conferences, seminars and other programs for county officials and county employees to study information relative to county affairs; and assist those officials in need of Continuing Education credits, as required by law.”
Planning is well underway for the 2014 CJCAT region and state conferences:
85th Annual West Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association Conference in San Angelo April 22-25
North & East Texas County Judges & Commissioners Association 2014 Annual Education Conference and Business Meeting in Galveston May 12-15
80th Annual South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association Conference on South Padre Island June 9-12
92nd Annual County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas Conference in Lubbock
Sept. 29-Oct. 2
(For additional information on these and other conferences, see the County Progress County Calendar on page 65.)
The conference agendas are dedicated to both the mandated responsibilities of the Commissioners Court and the discretionary duties Commissioners Courts endeavor to provide.
Fulfill My Mandated
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 a unit of state government, county government responsibilities include:
Process and maintain voter registration
Maintain and construct county roads and bridges
Provide for public safety
Maintain and operate the court and jail system including provision for indigent legal defense
Provide medical care for indigent county citizens
Facilitate the issuance and recording of public documents
Process motor vehicle registration and title transfers
Collect and remit state motor vehicle taxes
Provide local support for state agencies such as Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, Department of Public Safety, Texas Parks & Wildlife, and the Alcoholic Beverage Commission
During a conference presentation on the roles and responsibilities of the County Commissioner, Bell County Commissioner Tim Brown highlighted the complex nature of the job.
Commissioners Courts do not live in a democracy. Rather, county government is actually an agency of the state, and everything Commissioners Courts do is rooted in state law.
A college professor could attempt to teach a college class on the applicable body of law and not completely cover it. In addition, these laws pertaining to the Commissioners Court’s authority can be redundant and confusing.
The Commissioners Court is the governing body of a county, similar to the chief executive officer of a corporation, addressing fiscal policy, compliance and enforcement, a “complicated group of responsibilities.”
As part of his training course, Brown provided attendees with a compilation of statutes summarizing the general responsibilities and statutory authorizations for each function of the Court. The document cited hundreds of statutes authorized by the following:
Civil Practice and
Code of Criminal Procedure
Health and Safety Code
Human Resources Code
Local Government Code
Natural Resources Code
Parks and Wildlife Code
Texas Family Code
Vernon’s Revised Civil Statutes
Set Discretionary Goals
As a unit of local government, the Commissioners Courts of Texas are often described as “grassroots government,” and County Judges and Commissioners are oft portrayed as “those closest to the people” who live and work where “the rubber meets the road.”
In his presentation on “County Expenditures and Services,” Denton County Auditor James Wells wrote,
“Texas counties have long operated under the idea that their primary purpose is to provide services to the citizens. All actions of county government and all expenditures of county funds are connected to the goal of providing services to the citizens.” In the majority of Texas counties this means going beyond the mandatory services and expanding into “discretionary” services, such as parks, community centers, libraries, senior centers, and emergency medical and family services – those special functions that enhance the quality of individual lives and the community as a whole.
For example, Tom Green County Commissioners Court recently approved an additional $80,000 for expansion of a roof deck at the penthouse level of Stephens Central Library. The deck is being remodeled as a public venue for up to $496,647 – funded primarily by private donations.
Ward County Commissioners Court has approved plans for a new Pyote community center, while Collin County Commissioners Court has signed off on a grant of $635,000 for the Cottonwood Creek Hike and Bike Trail.
Navarro County Commissioners Court recently agreed to pay half of the cost of $14,400 to develop a master plan for two major industrial parks in Corsicana, including feasibility of a rail spur.
Val Verde County Commissioners Court okayed a contract with Quad Counties Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse to operate a domestic violence shelter.
What goals or resolutions do you have to improve the quality of life for your taxpayers?
Conduct Effective Meetings
Those resolutions discussed above will be addressed at meetings of the Commissioners Court. What about a goal to improve the effectiveness of your meetings?
No legal requirement obligates Commissioners Court meetings to be conducted under a formal parliamentary procedure. According to Attorney General Opinion DM-228: “A Commissioners Court may adopt reasonable rules that are consistent with relevant provisions of law to govern the conduct of its meetings. If the court wishes to use Robert’s Rules of Order or some other formal rules, the method chosen must be consistent with law, adopted by a majority vote of the court and applied to all court members.”
The Opinion refers to Sections 81.005 and 81.006 of the Local Government Code, which address the time, location, and quorum requirements of Commissioners Court meetings.
In addition, the Opinion states: “The court is also subject to the Open Meetings Act, but we have found no statute setting out comprehensive procedures for the conduct of Commissioners Court meetings.”
Legal requirements aside, some counties have decided that it is in their best interest to formally adopt rules of procedure, conduct and decorum for meetings of the Commissioners Court.
These can be helpful when correcting common misconceptions of the public. For instance, people often think the Commissioners Court meeting is a public hearing. The public is allowed to come and watch but does not have the automatic authority to speak. However, counties may allow members of the public to appear before the court, if the county so chooses, in which case a set of procedures governing public participation is advisable.
Trinity County adopted such procedures regarding public participation. For example, those who make an appearance are allowed five minutes and must guard their language and manner of speaking.
Another misconception some people have is that they can call the county office and have something put on the agenda, said Bell County Judge Jon Burrows.
“This sometimes occurs when someone has an issue with another elected official and wants to air it in court,” Burrows explained.
Issues such as public participation and the meeting agenda are addressed in a model set of rules of procedure, conduct and decorum for meetings of the County Commissioners Court, recommended by Jim Allison, general counsel to the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.
“Rules of procedure and decorum are very important for an efficient, productive Commissioners Court meeting,” Allison stated. “The rules provide a framework for the transaction of business and inform the public on the proper procedure for presenting comments to the meeting.” To view the model set of rules, go to https://countyprogress.com/Commissioners-court-decorum-document-2/.
Williamson County passed its set of procedures years ago.
“With the growing number of people who are requesting to address the court, in an effort to be fair we felt it necessary to have a set of rules that was published,” said Williamson County Judge Dan A. Gattis. “This allows everyone to be aware in advance of how the meeting would be conducted.”
Those wishing to address the court in Williamson County are required to complete a Public Participation Form, as stated in the adopted rules.
During Bell County meetings Burrows said he strives to maintain a light-hearted atmosphere coupled with “firm/business-like control.”
“You have to realize that you’re in control,” declared Andrews County Judge Richard H. Dolgener. “You’re the presiding officer.”
Offer to Serve My Association
Every Texas county is a member of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.
The CJCAT is divided into three regional associations, with several sub-groups within the regional organizations.
The North & East Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association is comprised of 73 counties.
The South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association includes 64 counties. (Chambers County is a member of both the North & East and South associations.)
The West Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association serves 118 counties.
The Deep East Texas County Commissioners and County Judges Association is a sub-group of North & East Texas, made up of 15 counties from Far East Texas.
On the opposite side of the state, the Far West Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association represents the western-most counties, with a total membership of 36.
Also a part of the West Texas group, the Panhandle County Judges and Commissioners Association claims 34 member counties.
Each Association, from the State Association down to the sub-regions, has elected officers. Most have committees that conduct important Association business, including the development and presentation of resolutions, discussion of conference sites, nomination of future officers, and selection of scholarship recipients.
How will you serve your Association during 2014?
Go Above and Beyond
Pursue Commissioners Court Advanced Curriculum Certification
Last, but certainly not least, is a worthy resolution that has already been achieved by close to 500 officials.
Commissioners Court Advanced Curriculum (CCAC) is a comprehensive educational program designed specifically for members of the Commissioners Court.
CCAC was adopted by the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas in 1992 to provide curriculum for an advanced study in county government. The program is continually updated, as foundational information provided in the original program is merged with material necessitated by legislative changes and the new and varied challenges faced by a rapidly growing state.
The development of CCAC is a combined effort of the CJCAT, V.G. Young Institute of County Government, a part of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, and the Texas Association of Counties.
“This program strengthens the credibility of our elected officials, helping them garner respect as they seek out education that will help them excel in their official duties,” said Bell County Commissioner Richard Cortese, chair of the CJCAT Commissioners Education Committee.
“This advanced educational program has given me valuable tools to help me perform my job as County Commissioner to the best of my ability,” said Ector County Commissioner Freddie Gardner, a member of the CJCAT Commissioners Education Committee. Gardner received his CCAC certificate in 2004. “The coursework provides specific information on topics that I deal with on a regular basis, such as grant-seeking, working with the Legislature, ethical governing, and indigent health care. I advise all county officials to pursue this course of study.”
CCAC provides a comprehensive course of study as follows:
Phase I Orientation – Hours presented at LBJ School of Public Affairs
Phase II Basics – 16 hours
Phase III Advanced Instruction – 32 hours
Phase I Orientation courses currently are offered at the LBJ School of Public Affairs Seminar for Newly Elected County Judges and Commissioners, which is conducted in Austin every January following an election year. Attendance at this seminar has traditionally been limited and restricted to new Judges and Commissioners. Since it is not feasible to require County Judges and Commissioners to retroactively attend the LBJ Orientation Seminar, County Judges and Commissioners who assumed office prior to Jan. 1, 1995, are permitted to substitute 16 hours of other approved instruction for the orientation course.
Phase II County Government Basics includes instruction concerning the duties and responsibilities of all county officers and departments. Phase III includes advanced instruction in the functions of county government. These courses are offered at the annual County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas regional and state conferences and the annual V.G. Young Institute of County Government School for County Commissioners Courts.