“The accumulation of all powers…in the same hands…may justly be pronounced as the very definition of tyranny.” I perhaps expose myself to some ridicule for quoting Federalist Paper #47 at the opening of an essay addressing county government, and invoking a term like tyranny, but the point is clear: When power is centralized, and officials are insulated from citizens by layers of bureaucracy staffed by political appointees, bad things happen. Let’s discuss three ongoing incidents.
First, Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria resigned in disgrace after the mishandling the 2022 midterm elections. Prior to the creation of the Elections Administrator, elections and voter registration were handled by the County Clerk and Tax Assessor-Collector. From missed deadlines to missing ballots, the election was a disaster, and the cost was more than 300% more than in the prior midterm election. Harris County taxpayers got less for more. Longoria had previously worked on numerous Democratic campaigns and had no experience running elections prior to her appointment.
Second, the Texas Rangers executed a search warrant in the offices of County Judge Lina Hidalgo to investigate bid-rigging. What we know so far is that she and her office are under investigation for illegally steering an $11 million contract to a political operative for the Democratic Party. That political operative had no previous experience with the sort of work for which the contract was awarded and all the texts and emails in the search warrant were from individuals who had previously been involved in Democratic politics—one of whom had been a congressional candidate.
Third, at the March 22nd Commissioner’s Court, there was a dispute about agenda item #146 which would have given District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office an additional $6 million to hire more prosecutors. After an hour of discussion nothing was resolved. Commissioner Adrian Garcia suggested the topic be tabled for further discussion in private. The argument had not been about whether the DA’s office needed the money, but rather if it had the money. No one could agree upon how much money the DA’s office had been budgeted. This is patently absurd.
Neither the DA, her Chief of Staff Vivian King, the County Administrator David Barry, Executive Director of the Office of Budget and Management Daniel Ramos, the County Judge nor the Commissioners could agree on how much money was in the DA’s budget or what it had been from 2020-2021. The budget is just numbers and should be objective; but the opacity of the new accounting system instituted under the new bureaucracy has led to nothing but confusion. Accountability is predicated upon transparency and the county government is being anything but transparent which means there can be no accountability. Perhaps that’s point.
The County Administrator for Harris County has twenty-two departments reporting to it. The functions of these departments had previously been dispersed throughout the county government under the direction of elected officials. Since 2018, as the county’s bureaucracy has grown and centralized, the budget has increased and so too has crime, corruption, and incompetence.
The three recent incidents discussed above could have been prevented with the proper internal controls—internal controls that can be improved by returning authority to elected officials. When political appointees are charged with safeguarding the public good corruption reigns since they are only loyal to those who appoint them—whereas elected officials have more of an incentive to represent citizens and to hold other elected officials accountable. Elected officials in Harris County have been stripped of their authority in favor of political appointees. This system of patronage should be eliminated, and authority returned to the Commissioners, County Clerk, Tax Assessor Collector and County Treasurer who the voters can hold accountable.
No one should be surprised what happens when well-resourced authority goes unchecked. We’ve known this for generations. Publius, in Federalist #6, states, “momentary passions and immediate interests have a more active control over human conduct than general or remote considerations for policy, utility, or justice.” In some sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that a central authority acted with greed and disregard for the public good—in fact, we should have expected it. This is why we have representative forms of government.
We can restore confidence in our government by allowing elected officials to do their jobs and by eliminating the centralized bureaucracy.