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Harris County advances voting centers idea at Hidalgo’s first meeting

January 9, 2019

Harris County Commissioners Court’s first meeting of the year was one of its longest in decades, as new County Judge Lina Hidalgo sought to make good on her campaign promise of greater transparency in county government and the two Republican commissioners grappled with Democratic control of the chamber for the first time in a generation.

The result was a nearly seven-hour session that included comment from more than 50 residents on a variety of topics and sometimes lengthy discussions on new proposals and routine measures alike, including a 15-minute debate over who should be on a committee to review the county’s sexual harassment training for employees.

Among the topics covered was a proposal by new County Clerk Diane Trautman to implement countywide voting centers, a request from new Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia to study the feasibility of a $15 minimum wage for county employees, and a call to direct the flood control district to determine how the $2.5 billion flood bond projects will benefit rich and poor areas equally.

In the past, the twice-monthly meetings at the county’s downtown administration building often concluded in less than an hour. Tuesday’s affair, which attracted more than 250 people between the court chambers and an overflow room, adjourned after 6 hours and 52 minutes and included a recess for lunch.

Hidalgo, who campaigned on making county government more open and less mysterious to residents, said she was pleased by the turnout.

“The most important part of making sure that government delivers is the ability of citizens to know what government does, to engage with government, so I’m very happy to make Commissioners Court meetings an avenue for participation,” she said.

The first-term Democrat acknowledged the need to develop a more efficient way to handle public speakers. Many scheduled to speak gave up and went home as morning turned to afternoon. One man, who said he arrived before 9 a.m. to ensure he would have a seat, waited until 4:30 p.m. for his opportunity to speak.

Hidalgo has encouraged her colleagues to examine whether to hold meetings at different dates, times and locations to provide less of a hassle to residents, who may be reluctant to skip work and battle traffic for a weekday meeting.

Trautman’s voting centers proposal received a warm reception from most public speakers, many of whom were from advocacy groups that favor the idea. Under the proposal, Harris County voters would be able to cast ballots at any polling place rather than only their assigned precinct. Trautman said that would make voting more convenient, since residents easily would be able to cast ballots near their work or school.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he was concerned the shift to voting centers could lead to the closure of some polling places cherished by residents, such as in their nearby churches or community centers. The concern was shared by black and Hispanic advocacy groups, who are especially sensitive to polling site changes, given Texas’ history of limiting ballot access.

Trautman assured the court that the county only would consolidate polling sites under a new voting center system after extensive discussions with neighborhood groups.

The county operates some 46 polling locations during early voting, but voters may only use their assigned precinct poll locations on Election Day. Trautman’s plan would use those 46 early voting sites, in addition to precinct polling locations, on Election Day.

More than 50 counties across Texas, including Fort Bend, Brazoria and Travis, already use voting centers. The county must apply to the Texas Secretary of State for permission to use the centers. Trautman said she hopes to use the centers first for low-turnout elections, such as school board balloting in May and this fall’s city of Houston election, before a high-turnout November general election.

Except for its lack of brevity, Hidalgo’s first meeting went much as those run by her predecessor, Ed Emmett, whom she defeated in November. Court members were collegial and at times made jokes, and Hidalgo sought input from each. She was confident and enthusiastic, and did not hesitate to ask for advice on parliamentary matters, such as whether an item required her to make a formal motion, from First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard.

Not only was the meeting the first to be led by Hidalgo, it was the first she had even attended, a point for which she drew criticism during her campaign, though she said she had watched the proceedings online.

In this new era of Democratic control of county government, Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle found themselves squarely in the minority on several occasions. They appeared perplexed during an Ellis soliloquy on the importance of ensuring flood bond funds are spent equitably among high- and low-income neighborhoods, as both commissioners had joined Ellis last year in including language to that effect in the bond proposal.

The pair suggested that, as in the past, the court should complete its agenda so that employees of county departments could return to their jobs before proceeding to public speakers. They were overruled by the three Democrats, who decided to schedule the speakers based on the agenda item they planned to address. The result — coupled with the fact that the loquacious Garcia and Ellis spoke on many more agenda items than was typical on the previous court —- was that the meeting stretched far longer than usual.

Radack and Cagle also lost a 3-2 vote directing the county attorney’s office to write an amicus brief for several lawsuits challenging the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. census.

Garcia proposed the $15 minimum wage study and said no county employee should be paid less than that rate. Other commissioners previously have pushed for increasing the pay for the county’s low-wage employees.

Budget Director Bill Jackson said Monday that just 666 employees earn an hourly wage less than $15, though he expects that figure to drop to 140 with the county’s new budget proposal in March.

zach.despart@chron.com

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