The Texas Constitution, adopted in 1876, was designed to prevent an excessive concentration of power. It divides the functions of county government into many separate offices, occupied by independent elected officers. Texas elects more local officials than any other state. Unlike the prior state constitution, the governor does not appoint county officials or set the budget and tax rate. The responsibility for filling vacancies and governing county finances is vested in the five members of the Commissioners Court with other duties assigned to other elected officers.
There are no lifetime appointments in Texas. At the conclusion of each four-year term, county officials face the voters who entrusted them with these duties. Texans respect the rule of law, and this system has ensured successful implementation of the will of the people through good times and severe challenges. As noted in his description of early Texas by our State Conference keynote speaker, historian H.W. Brands: “The saving grace of democracy – the one thing that made all the difference in the end – was that sooner or later, sometimes after terrible strife, democracy corrected its own mistakes…the people ultimately got things right, and that the victory of the Texans was a victory for America” Regardless of the outcome, the fact that we accept the results of our elections and continue the peaceful transition of power is a victory for us all.
At the writing of this column, the November 2022 elections have not been conducted. However, the magnitude of the transition in county government leadership is already apparent. A record number of county officials have decided to forego the opportunity to seek another term and retire. Others have been unsuccessful in the primaries. The January terms will mark an exodus of experienced officials and an influx of eager beginners. Fortunately, staggered terms will ensure a continuation of mid-term officers.
Nevertheless, it will require dedicated teamwork to ensure a successful transition for such extraordinary changes in leadership. County government is usually the first opportunity for public service. The complexity of the duties of each official, from constable to County Judge, has increased tremendously in recent years. Education and training are essential to the high level of performance required to meet the demands of these positions.
Fortunately, the county associations and the V.G. Young Institute of County Government have prepared educational programs to enable new officials to meet these requirements and avoid inadvertent errors in the early days of service. For new County Judges and Commissioners, the Seminar for Newly Elected County Judges and County Commissioners will be held at College Station, January 10-13, 2023. Information can be obtained from the V.G. Young Institute of County Government at 979-845-4572. Please inform your incoming Judges and Commissioners of this important opportunity.
The next legislative session in January will also initiate a large class of new legislators. We will discuss the education of these legislators on the role of county government in our next monthly column.