By Julie Anderson, Editor
Get educated. Do more with less. Make a difference. Serve. Improve communities. Each of these is synonymous with 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 Court, the list practically creates itself.
Fulfill My Mandated Court Duties
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:
- Conduct elections
- Process and maintain voter registration
- 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 the Texas Department of State Health Services, 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:
- Agriculture Code
- Civil Practice and Remedies Code
- Code of Criminal Procedure
- Education Code
- Election Code
- Government Code
- Health and Safety Code
- Human Resources Code
- Labor Code
- Local Government Code
- Natural Resources Code
- Occupations Code
- Parks and Wildlife Code
- Property Code
- Tax Code
- Texas Constitution
- Texas Family Code
- Transportation Code
- Utilities Code
- Vernon’s Revised Civil Statutes
- Water Code
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.
The Texas Constitution and statutes assign roads as a county responsibility, confirmed Jim Allison, general counsel to the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas. However, the funding level is discretionary with the Commissioners Court.
When it comes to prioritizing funding, the county road system has risen to the top of the list in Anderson County, shared County Judge Robert Johnston.
When working on the 2016 county budget, Johnston noted the immediate need for a long-term plan to address the county road system. Johnston broached the topic of a bond issue to fund road and bridge initiatives, and then he allowed time for the idea to sink in. At the next budget workshop, the decision was made to move forward, and on Nov. 8, 2016, Anderson County voters passed a $20 million bond issue dedicated to county roads and bridges.
“The projects include problem drainage issues that we are fixing as we work on the roads,” Johnston detailed. “By addressing these problems with enough money to be able to fix the problem instead of putting a Band-Aid on, we will get on top of the situation and keep it in good shape for years to come.”
Many of the roads in Anderson County have not been reworked from the ground up in the last 25 to 30 years, the Judge specified. The Commissioners Court hopes to repair more than 350 miles of the county’s 1,000-mile road system.
“With the county keeping our roads in top shape, it will bring an economic benefit to Anderson County through reduced repairs to vehicles traveling our roads and hopefully increased property values,” Johnston offered. “It will also address safety issues that we have had on some of our roads.”
“We as a Commissioners Court believe very strongly, as do the citizens who approved our bond issue, that we should keep the infrastructure of the county in good shape,” Johnston summarized.
What goals and priorities have you set for your county?
Conduct Effective Meetings
Issues such as infrastructure needs are 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 Allison.
“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.” 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.”
Pursue My Continuing Education
The Texas Constitution spells out the education requirements for members of Commissioners Court. What better time than January to set your educational calendar?
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 http://www.txcourts.gov/media/253241/rulesofjudedu112513.pdf.
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 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 2018 CJCAT region and state conferences:
- West Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association Conference in Frisco April 24-27
- North & East Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association Annual Conference and Business Meeting in Frisco May 14-17
- South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association Conference in McAllen June 11-14
- County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas Annual State Conference in The Woodlands Oct. 8-11
For additional details on each conference, see the County Progress County Calendar.
The conference agendas are dedicated to both the mandated responsibilities of the Commissioners Court and the discretionary duties Commissioners Courts endeavor to provide.
Go Above and Beyond
Pursue Commissioners Court Advanced Curriculum Certification
Earning your Commissioners Court Advanced Curriculum certification is a worthy resolution that has already been achieved by over 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,” said Cherokee County Commissioner Byron Underwood, chairman of the CJCAT County Commissioners Education Committee. “The advanced curriculum helps us learn about every aspect of county government including the duties and responsibilities of all elected officials, which helps us all excel in our official duties.” Underwood received his CCAC Completion Certificate in 2010 during his first term in office.
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.
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 subgroups within the regional organizations.
- The North & East Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association is comprised of 74 counties.
- The South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association includes 63 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 subgroup 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 subregions, 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 2018?