As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the Harris County Commissioners Court first considered the possibility of creating an elections administrator office, which would be responsible for running elections and registering voters, during its July 14 meeting. Under the county's current system, those duties are split between the county clerk and tax-assessor collector, respectively.
In a split 3-2 vote, the court authorized the county attorney, auditor and budget management department to study the budget, facilities, equipment and personnel that would be needed to be transferred from the county clerk and tax assessor-collector to the administrator to perform the duties of the office, with the caveat that there must be a public hearing with stakeholders on the proposal prior to the study's return to court in 30 days.
The study returned to the court for further consideration at its Aug. 11 meeting.
"I think this is the right thing to do for elections in Harris County," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during the Aug. 11 meeting. "What struck me the most was when ... there's been a certain increase in the voting-eligible population in Harris County, and there hasn't been a commensurate increase in the registration, so actually there's been a net decrease in the voters given where we ought to be, and we need to do better, so I'd be happy to support this."
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis—who placed the initial item on the July 14 agenda—said he, too, was in favor of creating an elections administrator office ahead of the November elections because he believes it is important for the person who is appointed to that office to see how elections are currently run in Harris County prior to taking over those duties Nov. 18. Additionally, Ellis said he felt it was important for those who are running for the positions of county clerk and tax-assessor collector in the upcoming election to know exactly what their duties would be.
However, the item was again met with opposition from precincts 3 and 4 Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle.
"I believe that our elected officials are the ones who should be making these decisions as opposed to appointed [officials]," Cagle said during the meeting. "Why do we not allow the tax-assessor [collector] and the clerk to weigh in on this process? I think that they should be involved in this process as well."
Likewise Radack called the move a "betrayal" following the resignation of former County Clerk Diane Trautman earlier this year.
'I think it's tragic that [Trautman] who was clearly was not for an elections administrator, who won an election fair and square, was trying to do a great job, ... tragically [she] had to leave office because of her health problems," Radack said. "But what's really sad is that members of her own party ignored any suggestion she made on who she would like to see follow her and saw it as an opportunity to seize the elections and take them out of the county clerk's office. As far as I'm concerned, it's a betrayal."
However, Ellis countered the creation of an elections administrator office was nothing personal against those elected officials who currently hold the positions of county clerk or tax-assessor collector.
"In no way was this a reflection on Dr. Trautman, Ms. Bennett or anybody else. In my judgement it's just the right thing to do," Ellis said. "The reality is most of us do better at what we focus on, and the office of tax-assessor [collector], first and foremost, in my judgement ought to focus on what the name of that office says—assess the taxes. And then secondly, the office of the clerk has tremendous responsibilities. ... I just think it's better to have an office that focuses every day of the year, for 12 months, 'What can we do to make this process of running elections as seamless [as possible]?' and 'What can we do to increase voter registration?'"
In another split 3-2 vote with Cagle and Radack dissenting, the court approved the transmittal of the report and the plan to establish the elections administrator office. Hidalgo added she will begin the process of forming the board that would be tasked with the search for and appointment of an elections administrator "as soon as possible." The board will comprise Hidalgo, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, Harris County Tax-Assessor Collector Ann Harris Bennett, Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson and Harris County Democratic Party Chair Lillie Schechter.