Harris County commissioners voted 3-2 at a Feb. 25 meeting to begin the process of replacing Bill Jackson as chief budget officer, a move that the two dissenting commissioners—Precinct 3's Steve Radack and Precinct 4's Jack Cagle—said caught them by surprise.

The motion was placed on the agenda by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia and received votes of support from County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis. Hidalgo said she believes a change in leadership at the budget department is necessary to carry out a larger effort that involves making budgeting more performance-based and more transparent in terms of why each department receives the allocation it does.

"At some point many years ago, the departments got an allocation, and every year after that, they basically get the same amount plus 2%," she said. "There is such a thing as performance-based budgeting that is the best practice that we don't implement. We've worked incredibly hard this year to try and get there; it's been pushing boulders uphill. We've made some progress, but I believe that our taxpayers deserve better, that we need to move in that direction faster."

The court will appoint a committee composed of five chiefs of staff—one representing each court member—to launch a national search process for a new budget director. Jackson indicated at the meeting he intends to continue to serve as budget chief while the search is underway.

Radack and Cagle criticized the move for lacking transparency. When Hidalgo suggested moving into executive session to discuss the issue, both Radack and Cagle declined.

"With the short notice that was put on this—I’ve been given no notice on any problem or issue," Cagle said. "Call it a protest, but I just don’t want to participate in an executive session when there’s been nothing presented to me or my staff regarding any problem."

Radack pointed out Jackson's role in helping the county reach a position of financial strength, including a AAA bond rating. He called Harris County "one of the best-run governments in the United States" and said he believed the court's decision would be closely watched by other organizations nationwide.

Hidalgo said, regardless of who the new budget chief is, she is dedicated to maintaining the county's financial strength.

"I will of course not accept any replacement that doesn't maintain our bond rating and that doesn't maintain a strong fiscal position," she said.

Jackson has served as the head of the Harris County Budget Management Department since 2011. The department is responsible for creating the annual budgets for the county's general fund and the Harris County Flood Control District in addition to managing debt service for the county, flood control district, Port of Houston, toll road authority and hospital district. County commissioners unanimously approved a $3.2 billion general fund budget proposal from Jackson for the 2020-21 fiscal year at a Feb. 11 meeting.

Radack offered a second motion at the Feb. 25 meeting for the court to vote to affirm its confidence in Jackson, which passed 5-0 with support from the three court members who also voted to begin the search process for his replacement. Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia all expressed gratitude to Jackson for his service to the county, and Ellis said he would like to see if there is another role within the county government for Jackson, given his expertise and knowledge of county issues.

"These processes are always difficult," Garcia said. "I wish there was a better way to do this."