The role of County Treasurer usually flies under the radar for most voters, and even most people in politics. While the role is essential to the proper functioning of county government, as well as maintaining accountability for those charged with allocating taxpayer dollars, it does not get the attention this responsibility warrants. Under normal conditions this can be excused. But Harris County is not operating in normal times.
Think of the Treasurer as a referee in a basketball game. When the game is going well, and both teams are playing by the rules, the referee is unseen by the crowd. It is only when rules are broken that the referee becomes more visible. In Harris County, three staffers for the County Judge Lina Hidalgo have been indicted for bid-rigging, and more may follow. The issue under investigation is an $11 million contract awarded to Elevate Strategies—a one-person public relations firm run by a former political operative of Adrian Garcia’s. While the contract was canceled, at least $1.4 million has already been awarded and has not been recovered. There are three occasions in which the Treasurer should have, and still can, intervene.
First, when the contract was awarded, there were obvious discrepancies in the bid process that should have been caught by anyone paying attention. The Treasurer should have raised the issues before the item made it on to the Commissioner’s Court agenda and then testified before Commissioner’s Court even if it made it on the agenda. It is the responsibility of the Treasurer to make sure all parties—particularly taxpayers—are aware of improprieties and irregularities.
Second, the $1.4 million that was paid to Elevate Strategies after the contract was canceled never should have been approved by the Treasurer. The Treasurer oversees all deposits and authorizes all withdrawals from county accounts. Proper oversight would have prevented this money from being paid. This means the current Treasurer, Dylan Osborne, was either complicit, incompetent, or negligent.
Third, the money has not been recovered. It is the responsibility of the County Treasurer to recover all debts owed to the county. The current Treasurer has shown no inclination to do so. Of course, doing so would bring into his focus his own role in the $1.4 million being released.
The Harris County Treasurer is a fiduciary of the taxpayers—it should act on behalf of the best interests of taxpayers. The role of the Harris County Treasurer is codified in the Texas State Constitution and in statute as it is an essential part of the checks and balances in county government. Because it is an elected position near the bottom of the ballot, does not diminish its importance to the proper functioning of county government. It serves an essential oversight function to prevent situations that Harris County is currently experiencing.
There are many other responsibilities of the County Treasurer, and many more instances over the previous four years in which the Treasurer could have prevented the fraud and waste in Harris County, but this incident brings into stark clarity, how important the role of Treasurer is, and why it should be given attention in November.