Due to alleged violations of open meetings law, the Harris County Commissioners Court has had to hold a “do-over” vote for a contested road funds reallocation. The county judge also had to delay another vote on a controversial immigration policy resolution.
Prior to the court’s June 25 meeting, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) placed a vaguely worded request on the official agenda to discuss and possibly act “on METRO funding to the county.”
At the official public meeting, Ellis outlined his proposal to toss out the METRO, or road-funding formula allocating monies to each of the county’s four precincts for road construction and maintenance. Ellis’s measure sets aside the budget commissioners approved back in February and March, under which the county had already begun planning FY 2019-2020 projects.
Ellis proposed to abandon the previous road mileage formula in favor of an equal distribution of funds per precinct. The resulting shift of funds moves approximately $9 million away from Precincts 3 and 4 and into Precincts 1 and 2.
The previously used formula accounted for the higher growth rates and road miles in Precincts 3 and 4. While Ellis’ Precinct 1 includes 2,014 lane miles and overlaps with Houston city road maintenance, Precinct 4 contains 5,366 miles, most of which lie outside of any city limits.
Likewise, Precinct 3 includes 3,963 miles.
Although Ellis failed to provide notice of the specifics of his proposal to the public and to Harris County’s two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle (Precinct 4), and Steve Radack (Precinct 3), Democrat Commissioner Adrian Garcia (Precinct 2) and County Judge Lina Hidalgo joined Ellis in pushing through a vote at the June 25 meeting.
The measure passed on a 3-2 party-line vote.
Commissioner Cagle responded with a letter sent to the Texas Attorney General, the district attorney, and the county attorney asking for opinions on whether the vote complied with open meetings regulations requiring local government bodies to provide timely and sufficiently specific notice of planned action.
In light of the possible Open Meetings Act and transparency violations, Ellis placed a more thoroughly worded proposal on the agenda for the July 9 meeting. This time a number of speakers attended to protest the road fund shift, including Democrat State Representative Jon Rosenthal, whose district includes portions of Harris County precincts 3 and 4.
Noting his background as a mechanical engineer, Rosenthal said, “We don’t change stuff until we study and understand why it is the way it is in the first place.”
Rosenthal urged the court to study the issue first and then formulate a new fund distribution plan.
“The districts are not identical, so it doesn’t make sense to me that inherently you’d want identical funding.”
State Representative Gina Calanni (D-Katy) sent a letter in opposition to the road fund reallocations, but at the July 9 meeting, commissioners again adopted Ellis’ proposal on a 3-2 party line vote, although they agreed to further study the issue.
In a second letter dated July 8, Commissioner Cagle formally objected to five items on the July 9 meeting agenda. Cagle’s letter warns that the court’s failure to provide “backup” documentation, fiscal cost information, and specifics of the proposed action would violate the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Among the five items listed, Cagle includes a vaguely worded proposal from Commissioner Garcia to approve a resolution regarding “immigration reform.”
During the discussion at the July 9 meeting, Cagle advised the court that only one member of his staff had received a copy of Garcia’s proposed “immigration” resolution at 10:26 P.M. the night before.
Cagle requested delaying official action so that he, his staff, and the public could have time to review and consider Garcia’s resolution.
“The Public has a right to know what it is we are going to vote on in advance of the vote,” Cagle added.
After hearing advisement from the county attorney, Judge Hidalgo agreed to delay the vote to the next scheduled meeting.
Commissioner Garcia’s proposed resolution calls for national leaders to allow “people without permanent legal immigration status” to be given legal status and driver’s licenses. It also calls on the Department of Homeland Security to “end inhumane conditions at detention and shelter facilities,” and to cease operations that separate families. Garcia’s resolution also “encourages County departments to refer residents” to an Immigrant Rights hotline to report ICE raids.
Numerous witnesses attended the July 9 meeting to testify in favor of Garcia’s resolution, but none were present to express opposition.
The official agenda is not yet available to the public, but the Harris County Commissioners Court is scheduled to meet again on July 30.
Commissioner Jack Cagle’s letter, a diagram of the road funding allocation, and Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s proposed immigration resolution can all be read below.
Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. 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.