What do you know about the role and powers of County Government?

July 13, 2013  

by Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Dougherty

What do you know about your Travis County Commissioners Court? What can we do? What can’t we do? What legal authorities and powers does the Court have? What do I do as your County Commissioner? What qualifies me to be your County Commissioner?

This is the first in a series of articles in which I’ll enlighten you about the role of county government in your life. It’s helpful to be familiar with the answers to these and other similar questions when contacting a Commissioner’s office or come before the Commissioners Court with requests that your Commissioner or the Court take some action on an issue or situation you feel is important.

One way to start answering these questions is to compare the formation, role, and authority of county government to that of city government.

Counties are local subdivisions of the state…created by the state to be an “administrative arm” of the state to aid the state in administrating state law. Counties have very limited rights for local self-government, and have only those authorities granted them by the state legislature and the state constitution.

Cities are created at the request of local inhabitants (citizens in an area vote for “incorporation”)…to serve local needs… thus cities are not an “administrative arm” of the state. With the creation of a city charter, cities can have greater right of local self-government, and can create broader areas of authority where they can act without needing authority from the state.

All 254 counties in Texas have a Commissioners Court, consisting of 4 commissioners and a county judge. This “administrative” body was established by the Texas Constitution of 1876. Counties are divided into four commissioner precincts (each with 25% of the county population), with each precinct electing their commissioner for the Court. The county judge is elected by the entire county. Commissioner precincts 1 and 3 are elected in presidential election years (last in 2012). Commissioner precincts 2 and 4, and the county judge, are elected in gubernatorial election years (next in 2014).

The legal qualifications to be a county commissioner or the county judge are fairly simple…You must be a U.S. citizen, have resided in Texas for 12 months, have lived in your commissioner precinct for six months (anywhere in the county for county judge), and be at least 18 years old. A county judge does not need to be a lawyer, but must be “well informed in law”. Of course we all know it takes a whole lot more than those minimum legal requirements to persuade the majority of the voters in an election (held every four years) to entrust a person with the office of commissioner or county judge.

Since we recently experienced the situation of a vacancy on the Commissioners Court, let’s talk about what happens when a vacancy (for whatever reason) occurs in the office of any county elected office.

The Commissioners Court fills a county judge vacancy, and also a vacancy in MOST OTHER elected county offices. The county judge fills a vacancy in a county commissioner’s office…As our County Judge did when he appointed Bruce Todd to fill the Precinct 2 Commissioner office after former Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt resigned to seek the office of county judge. (Our County Judge Sam Biscoe will not seek re-election to that office.)

Another situation (extensively covered in the news) concerning a possible vacancy in a county office is that of the Travis County District Attorney office. We’ve seen calls for the District Attorney to resign or be removed from office. We saw numerous people addressing the Commissioners Court during the Citizens Communication portion of our weekly agenda…Some called for the Commissioners Court to remove the District Attorney from office. The Commissioners Court eventually addressed the situation as an official agenda item. Our County Attorney explained that, under state law, the Commissioners Court has no authority to remove any elected official from office. And even if the District Attorney were to resign, a new District Attorney would not be appointed by the Commissioners Court… nor by the County Judge. Again under state law, the Governor fills a vacancy in the office of any district attorney, since a district attorney is technically an employee of the state (not the county).

As you can see, we’ve only just begun to answer the questions I posed in my opening paragraph. Next time we’ll continue our “civics lesson” on the role and powers of your county government.


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