The Role and Powers of County Government – Part 2

September 13, 2013  

by Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Dougherty

This is the second in a series of articles in which you’ll find out about the role of county government. Last time I talked about the formation of counties as compared to cities…that counties are created by the state and cities are created by citizens of a local area. We touched on the establishment of the Commissioners Court, qualifications to be on the Commissioners Court, and Commissioners Court authority to fill a vacancy in the office of any county elected official.

Under what rules did Texas grow from 23 counties to its’ present day 254 counties? How are Texas counties created? How are their sizes determined? Since counties are sub-divisions of the state, they are governed by the State Constitution.

For the question of “under what rules”, the answer is the TEXAS CONSTITUTION. How counties are created is answered by ARTICLE 9, Section 1- CREATION OF COUNTIES. Here’s the first sentence…”The Legislature shall have power to create counties for the convenience of the people subject to the following provisions:” Sub-sections (1) and (2) follow that phrase. So that first sentence tells us they’re created by the State Legislature.

The question of sizes is answered by sub-sections (1) and (2). Here’s the shortened version, in plain language: “New counties must be at least 700 square miles in area… The existing county cannot be reduced to less than 700 square miles…The new county line can’t be closer than 12 miles to the existing county seat”. In looking at a map of today’s Texas counties and applying this 700 square mile rule, we see there still are areas in west Texas where more counties could be formed. But the population base needed to support all new county functions probably makes that impractical.

Before we get into specifics of County Government today, let’s look at some interesting history to gain a perspective on how we arrived at present day Travis County.

Our current constitution is the seventh in Texas history. Our very first was when we were still part of the Mexican state of “Coahuila y Tejas”. Upon gaining independence from Mexico in 1836, our next one was the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas. Before our present day constitution, Texas was also ruled by the state constitutions of 1845, 1861, 1866, and 1869. Our current constitution was framed and written by the Constitutional Convention of 1875, and adopted on February 15, 1876 (by a vote of 136,606 to 56,652). For you history buffs, more detailed information can be found by googling “History of the Texas Constitution”.

Here’s a couple of interesting things that happened locally before Travis County was formed… On December 27, 1839 the community called Waterloo was renamed and created as the City of Austin by the Republic of Texas Congress. About 3 weeks later (on January 19, 1840) Austin was designated as the capital of the Republic of Texas.

When established in 1836, the Republic of Texas formed 23 counties. Present day Travis County did not yet exist… its area was part of a much larger Bastrop County (one of the original 23 counties). The original Travis County was established on January 25, 1840 (making Austin the county seat) by the same 4th Texas Congress that had, just 6 days before, approved the City of Austin as the Republic’s capital.   From our Texas history classes, we should all know that our county was named in honor of William Barret Travis, commander of Republic of Texas forces at the Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio. On February 21, 1840 the first election for Travis County officials occurred… from a reported population of only 856 people.

By the time Travis County was formed, 32 Texas counties had been created (9 more than the original 23). The area of the original Travis County (then known as the Travis District) was approximately 40,000 square miles. Since today’s Travis County is about 990 square miles, what happened to those other approximately 39,000 square miles? Between 1846 and 1858 several more counties were created by carving out areas from the “Travis District”. You’ll be familiar with these names….Comal, Gillespie, Hayes, Burnet, Lampasas. Not so familiar names…Brown, Callahan, Coleman, Eastland, Runnels (since they’re far northwest of us in the I-20 area close to Abilene). Again for you history buffs, detailed information about the history of Travis County can be found on the Travis County Archives website, www.traviscountyhistory.org/tchistory. On that site you can also find links to other local history and archives, including the very enlightening Austin History Center.

Following this “history lesson”, next time we’ll look at the current status of Travis County’s legal authorities and powers… and my role in carrying those out as your Precinct 3 Commissioner.


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