Precinct 2 Commissioner candidates include incumbent Charlie Riley as well as challengers Greg Parker and Brian Dawson. The candidates answered a range of questions regarding county transportation issues, spending and ethics.
Q: Cutting expenses is an obvious way to reduce county spending. What steps will you take to optimize county spending?
Parker: "Making sure we actually institute zero-based budgeting and also making sure the county alleviates evergreen contracts. I think it's important to get away from having evergreen contracts, whether it be for software or other things that continue to live on and eat up into the budget. It's important that you look to get rid of those because each and every year these contract come up, and you can do program evaluation and see if its worth it for the citizens. I'm thinking that's important, and that's not being done now.
We can also look at overall technology strategy, with me being an IT project manager. We can look at a countywide IT strategy to reduce costs. Right now, you got this elected official using this software and that software, so it's important that we streamline all of that. I'm also open to cutting and merging departments and getting rid of ghost employees. All these things we can do to cut spending."
Riley: "I think we do a good job at cutting spending. I think we do a good job at taking care of business. We evaluate contracts each year as they come up. When you're in a fast-growing county like Montgomery County, the more people that move in here, the more services you have to provide. Where are you going to cut services with more people coming in? You have to take that into consideration, and you have to provide services for these folks coming in.
Ghost employees and fake contracts—I don't see it. I have never seen them. They are not here. I don't know where you would cut but if you do find a place to cut, I am more than willing to do that. The more services, the more people you have to provide them. People aren't going to come here if they don't have the services."
Dawson: "The ghost employees do exist. It was estimated almost $3 million in budgeted positions that were not filled, that's just a fact. While some of those have been cut, they do exist. What we have to do is get more active in our management of how we manage the court and manage the departments that fall under the court. It starts with bringing the authority back to the court and away from a single person. It's constitutionally invested in the court; we need to get it back to the court. Allowing that management, we need a Commissioners Court that has immersed themselves in these departments so we can find those deficiencies so we can work with them to lead them and to show them what we can do, and what we need to be doing to hit the spinning targets that we got.
We need to divide everything into call centers so we can better evaluate county government and so we can stay on top of all these. We also have to watch out for our grants. It's not uncommon to see grants come to Commissioners Court and get approved, but we never see them come back and [get] re-evaluated when they get worked back into the budget. That is a big component of what is perpetually growing our spending and growing our county budget. And I'd like to see a policy where those grants, instead of being automatically worked into the budget once the grants go away, that we actually come up for evaluation in our sunset."
Q: It is hard to imagine a road project that has inspired more community resistance than the Woodlands Parkway extension. Do you believe the road should be removed from the thoroughfare plan, a west side corridor placed somewhere else and that right of way sold as a sign of acknowledgment of the will of the voters?
Riley: "No, I do not believe it needs to be removed from the thoroughfare plan. Simply because it's on that thoroughfare plan for the developers over on the west side who want to develop that road, they know where we need to go with that room and it needs to stay there. Am I in support of Woodlands Parkway being extended? No, I'm not. I told you all when it went down and when we sat down to do the road bond for November 2015. I heard what you said. Don't tie an end to Woodlands Parkway and go south.
You even wanted me to expand and widen Hardin Store Road. Well, Hardin Store Road is a $27 million project, it's not doable. You can build a road from Conroe Huffsmith Road to Mansions Way for $6 million. It keeps it out of Woodlands Parkway just like everyone wanted it to; it goes south and it does everything you all asked me to do."
Dawson: "Yes, we need to remove it from the thoroughfare plan, and it's one of the things that I've suggested to insure that it is removed and that the will of the people is respected. The fact of the matter is, [Riley] says he's opposed to building the road now when he declared in Commissioners Court that we will build this road one way or another. That is not respecting the will of the people. The people of Montgomery County made it clear that they do not want this road. They do not want it and the will of the people need to be respected. Have it removed from the thoroughfare plan, whatever needs to be done to insure the road isn't built."
Q: Montgomery County adopted an ethics policy in January 2017 that Judge Craig Doyal described as the second-strongest ethics policy in the state. However, ethics committee members are selected by the Commissioners Court, but the county attorney can reject initial complaints and not inform the ethics committee and the ethics committee cannot investigate complaints and has no power to penalize violators. What it is about this ethics policy that makes it strong, and do you agree that it provides an adequate tool to ensure ethical government?
Dawson: "What makes it so strong is that I think it reaches the limit of statutes. I think that's a matter of function and that's been one of my biggest complaints about it. I'm the only one up here who has offered an ethics plan to give us the toughest ethics policy in the state of Texas. One of the things we should've done when our ethics policy was adopted, we were in the middle of a legislative session, we could've gone and requested inclusion in the local government code of statute that would've allowed us to penalize violators. It would've given anywhere between a $500-$4,000 fine, based on the findings of the ethics committee.
Also, one of the questions that came out of Commissioners Court was what to do about frivolous complaints and how to handle [the] appeals process. Legislation on the books currently addresses both of those. That legislation says if there are frivolous complaints, they get the same penalty as someone who violates it. As far as appeals, it gives district courts jurisdiction and enforces them to hear the case and hear the merits of it if there is an appeal. Unfortunately, we didn't pursue it. I'm thankful to say now I know Steve Toth agreed to carry the legislation that will include Montgomery County and give us the authority to do that and give us [the] ability to damage those who violate the ethics policy."
Parker: "Whether Steve Toth goes to the Legislature and actually gets that bill passed or you sit back and look and say the ethics policy need to be strengthened, the fact of the matter is that the real ethics policy are these individuals here, looking to see who they want to elect. That is the strongest ethics policy, to actually go through and say they believe a person is doing something wrong and they can vote that person out. Elect someone that has stood up for ethics and stood up against nepotism. I, as a city manager, have done exactly that. I stared down the city leaders that I faced and said I would not hire your son-in-law for my police chief and I will not give your friends special breaks. I've done that and I've looked it in the eye. That's the type of person we need to elect. That's the ethics policy."
Riley: "The ethics policy we adopted was one of the strongest in the state of Texas. It was reviewed by the county attorney and the district attorney. They brought it back to us and told us this is what we needed to do, and this is where it needed to be. It's a policy that we can all follow and understand. It's a policy that is enforceable. You got to have one that is enforceable and if it's not enforceable, then it is not worth having. They've told us this where it needs to be and we have agreed with those guys. I believe the ethics policy we have is one of the strongest in Texas and one we need to keep."