Berry, who currently serves as executive director of the Harris County Budget Department, was hired in June 2020 to replace the budget department's former executive director of nearly 10 years, Bill Jackson, in another split vote.
According to a June 24 letter from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo proposing the creation of a county administrator position, the court previously approved an agreement with PFM Consulting Group Inc. in 2019 to conduct an organizational and operational review of Harris County government. The final report, which was published in November, recommended the implementation of structural reforms to streamline the government's current organization, such as the creation of a county administrator position.
"For Harris County to continue to grow and prosper in the face of its external and internal challenges, county government must implement reforms to become more efficient, effective and resilient, and to address long-standing equity issues experienced by people in diverse communities across the county," the 2020 report reads. "It must build the basic infrastructure of governance necessary to meet the moment and augment this new stronger framework with a commitment to innovation and stakeholder engagement."
According to the letter, a similar study was conducted by KPMG in 1997, resulting in a similar conclusion.
"There are no routine management team meetings to discuss countywide policy and coordination. ... Departments function largely as separate operating entities," the 1997 report reads.
Under Harris County's current organizational and reporting structure, more than 20 departments report directly to the Commissioners Court. According to the letter, the addition of a county administrator position aims to improve coordination, enhance accountability and strengthen oversight by charging the county administrator with providing day-to-day oversight of the county government and providing guidance and coordination to all county departments. According to Hidalgo, all five other U.S. counties with populations of more than 3 million people have an appointed county administrator, making Harris County the largest county nationwide without a county administrator or manager.
"We have enormous, enormous challenges in Harris County, and the crux of this is that we have to modernize our organizational structure so that we can really tackle those challenges," Hidalgo said during the June 29 meeting. "It's not a radical idea. It's something that all but one other major Texas jurisdiction has put in place, so it's a due-diligence issue that we're actually behind on and we can move forward on."
According to the letter, the county administrator would be appointed and subject to removal by a majority of the Commissioners Court and would be allocated an initial budget of $2 million. Additionally, the letter states the county administrator would be tasked with the following duties and responsibilities:
- serve as the county budget officer;
- maintain the authority to appoint and dismiss deputies, managing directors and other department heads, expect where a position must be appointed by Commissioners Court according to Texas statute, in which case appointment should be made by Commissioners Court on the recommendation of the county administrator;
- develop and present regular reports to Commissioners Court on county performance related to identified outcomes and metrics approved by Commissioners Court;
- develop and present the county's long-range strategic plan for consideration and approval by Commissioners Court;
- coordinate the development and execution of strategic goals and objectives, performance management and sound fiscal management with significant responsibility to proactively identify and resolve issues to ensure ongoing county operations; and
- provide guidance and coordination to all county departments to ensure county business is conducted in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.
To view the full letter, see below:
Critics of the proposal said they were concerned the creation of a county administrator position would take away power from Harris County voters while also redistributing power amongst court members.
"This is not a D or an R issue; I think whether or not we have a county administrator is more about control of power, not about whether it's a Republican or Democrat at that time; it's a power-to-the-people issue," Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said. "We most likely will vote 3-2 on who's going to be the new county administrator—that means that three of us will control the county administrator and the power will actually be increased in [the Democrat's] column, rather than diffused."
However, Hidalgo argued the new position would have little effect on how each commissioner currently operates their respective precincts and that decisions will still be made by a majority court vote.
"This is simply an internal management adjustment; it's about keeping the machinery of government well oiled," Hidalgo said. "The commissioners still have their teams ... there's nothing different in the precinct management ... Every large county in Texas, including Republican-led counties and Republican-led counties around the country, have this system ... [so] it's not anything different or new or alien ... and just as with everything, it always takes three votes to make decisions."
Those in opposition also argued that the proposed $2 million budget could be put to better use elsewhere in the county and that the public was not given adequate time to share their input on the item prior to the June 29 vote. However, Hidalgo said the court had been discussing the possibility of creating a county administrator for at least six months.
"If anyone is surprised by us planning to consider a a county administrator, they have not been paying attention," Hidalgo said.
Following several hours of public comment with speakers both for and against the proposition, the court approved the creation of a county administrator position and appointed Berry to fill that position effective immediately in a split 3-2 vote; the court Republicans, Cagle and Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey, voted against the measure.