Local NewsHarris County Adopts Equity Framework for Employment, County Services

Emulating programs in Seattle and Madison, Harris County will enact new equity policies for hiring, contracting, and providing county services to residents.
November 10, 2021
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In a 3 to 2 party-line vote Tuesday, Harris County commissioners approved the adoption of new “equity” guidelines for hiring, contracting, and county services.

“Advancing equity means striving for the same outcomes and opportunities across different groups not simply delivering the same treatment when it fails to yield fair, just, and equal results,” said County Administrator David Berry in presenting his proposed guidelines. 

“That’s a starting point when we think about flood equity, transportation equity, health equity, and other services the county provides.”

Citing similar programs in Austin and Madison, Wisconsin, and a study showing that only 9 percent of county contracting dollars were awarded to minority or women-owned businesses, Berry said he planned to develop models for county departments, offer equity training to county employees, and orchestrate joining the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE). 

Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) praised the guidelines, saying, “Clearly governmental policies whether they were on our level or some other governmental level…created many of the inequities that exist today.” 

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By the end of March 2022, Berry plans to have held at least three equity training sessions for county staff and to have developed “equity maturity models” for use by county departments. 

Equity goals for each department, a county equity dashboard and assessment tool, and new guidelines for employee and hiring policies will be completed by the end of June 2022.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) asked how the county could enforce equity guidelines among the departments, but Berry said he could not control departments that do not answer to him.

Noting that his precinct was already applying guidelines set by the county, Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct.2) expressed concern that the new document under consideration was “rather abstract” and could be used to implement punitive policies.

After quoting some of the more obscure language in the document, Ramsey added, “I am for being sure we treat people fairly, equitably, be sure that neighborhoods that historically have been overlooked, we need to address those case by case,” but he cautioned that, “one person’s equity is another person’s discrimination.”

Although Berry’s framework offered few details, Madison’s program includes a commitment to affirmative action and a Racial Equity & Social Justice (RESJ) tool for hiring that urges reconsideration of education and minimum experience requirements that might “negatively impact” some candidates.

After referring to a report that the gender wage gap in Harris County overall was 20 percent in 2019, Ellis suggested that there were probably inequities in what the county paid women, saying this was a chance to come out of the “Middle Ages.” He also praised Berry for looking to Seattle and Chicago’s Cook County in crafting the guidelines.

Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) noted that his chief of staff and second in command staff were both women and that pay was determined by taking an average of what each member of commissioner’s court paid equivalent staff. He also noted that Seattle is less populous and that many people were leaving cities like Seattle to come to Texas. 

“I’m not in favor of us always feeling like we have to do what Seattle does,” said Cagle.

“I think we need to make sure we’re an inclusive place, that makes sure that we are friendly to all and that we don’t discriminate against anyone. No matter where you come from no matter how you wear your hair no matter how you speak…that all people are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo praised Berry for seeking equity goals for internal county government practices and asked for confirmation that the guidelines would impact external services.

“That’s absolutely right,” said Berry. “And not even just equitable access to service, which I think is vital, but equitable outcomes.”

“Part of these guidelines is to always disaggregate by race, ethnicity, zip code to understand what’s really going on and to use that information as the county decides how to serve people.”

“It is about outcomes, not necessarily delivering the same resources, the same treatment,” said Hidalgo.

A copy of the guidelines can be found below.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.

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