Harris County Commissioners voted today to extend a coronavirus disaster declaration to August 26, 2020.
Passed on a 3-2 party-line vote, the initial request from Hidalgo specified an extension through July 15, 2020, but Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Precinct 2) motioned to extend to the end of July, and then Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) motioned to extend through the end of August.
Hidalgo suggested extending only until the August 26 date since the commissioners court would be meeting on August 25.
Prior to those motions, Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) had said while he did not necessarily oppose the extension, he had concerns regarding some of the actions, expenditures, and contracts approved under the judge’s emergency authority.
Cagle said he had at times not been made aware of the actions taken until after implementation, including a $4.2 million contract to begin hosting jury calls at NRG Arena.
“We didn’t know any of the details about the movement out to NRG, that there was a big trial that was about to occur out there, that we were going to start transporting inmates back and forth to NRG, and what jail standards were going to be followed with,” said Cagle. “I understand that you may or may not have signed a contract for $4.2 million involving this process…with some renewal terms.”
A second example Cagle offered was a contract for Recruitment Consulting Services that the judge had signed under coronavirus emergency powers. He said that the decision could have waited 72 hours for a commissioners court discussion.
Cagle requested the county attorney’s office to submit a listing of all the purchase orders and contracts that had been approved under executive orders so that the court and the public would know what was being done under emergency powers.
Hidalgo defended her decisions saying that the contract for the consulting services had been discussed months ago and had been on the previous meetings’ agendas, and that there was an urgent need to fill positions under coronavirus conditions.
The judge also defended the contract to use NRG to house jury proceedings, saying “The wheels of justice are turning too slowly…we had this discussion with…[Justice Management Institute] last time.”
“They needed this to be signed,” she added.
She did say the commissioners should have been notified by the Justice Administration Department about the plan and would ask why that had not been communicated.
Hidalgo asserted that Cagle’s request for the listing of executive actions was already being met since a list was being provided just before each commissioners court meeting.
In voting against the extension, Commissioner Steve Radack (R-Precinct 3) said, “I just want to say that clearly some of the decisions you’ve made had nothing to do with an emergency.”
“This stuff is ramrodded through, some of it, without any question, that had nothing to do with an emergency, so I’m a no.”
Last week, Judge Hidalgo had upgraded the county’s status to “Level 1-Red,” saying there was a “[s]evere and uncontrolled transmission,” and asked all residents to stay home.
Use of the county’s emergency alert system to warn residents to stay home did draw some criticism from other leaders, such as Lt. Governor Dan Patrick who took to social media to call the alert “over the top.”
“During these serious times, we need calm leaders not panic alerts that scare people,” wrote Patrick.
The Houston and Harris County region has reported an increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, but hospital leadership has said that hospital capacity is not currently “an immediate concern.”
For June 29, Texas DSHS reported hospitalizations had increased, but new cases/positive rates were down overall.
Harris County’s coronavirus dashboard reports there have been 376 deaths and there are currently 19,955 active cases. According to the latest estimates, there are more than 4.7 million residents in the county.
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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.