In the days following the death of longtime Houston public servant El Franco Lee on January 3, there was much mourning, as well as much debate over who would take his place as Precinct 1 commissioner on the Harris County Commissioners Court.
There was something else, too, a question a few brave souls dared to ask: What the heck is the Harris County Commissioners Court? That’s fair, we suppose. The court, which has only four major seats, often flies under the radar—it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. And its meetings, while public, are far less attended and scrutinized by members of its constituency than Houston City Council’s.
Yet these four elected officials have an enormous amount of power and an annual budget of roughly $1.5 billion, and their decisions impact not only all Houstonians, but the fast-growing population of 1.8 million people who live in the unincorporated parts of Harris County, which is now the third-largest in the United States.
For now, here’s a quick crash course on what you need to know:
What is the Harris County Commissioners Court?
The court is responsible for no less a task than serving as the main governing body for the entire county, which includes adopting its budget, setting tax rates, calling for bond elections, building and maintaining roads and bridges, setting boundaries for voting precincts, and overseeing county courthouses, jails, libraries and parks (i.e., those libraries and parks not run by the City of Houston, such as the 7,800-acre George Bush Park in the Barker Reservoir or the Spring Branch Memorial Library in Hedwig Village).
Who's on the Harris County Commissioners Court?
Gene Locke, Precinct 1 (who was appointed to Lee’s seat and will serve through 2016, with the question of who takes over in 2017 still to be decided); Jack Morman, Precinct 2; Steve Radack, Precinct 3; R. Jack Cagle, Precinct 4.
What are their term limits?
None. Seats on the court can be held for decades. Lee held his spot for over 30 years, during which time the Houston native advocated for everything from increased funding for mental-health resources and senior-citizen care to establishing the Dynamo as the city’s first Major League Soccer team.
Who else is on the court?
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who’s basically been the CEO of Harris County since 2007. (He was appointed to the position when his predecessor, Robert Eckels, resigned, but ran for election in 2008, and has now won his seat three successive times.)
What is a precinct?
It’s one of four geographic voting boundaries within Harris County. (These are not to be confused with the eight precincts patrolled by the various constables’ offices, nor with the 1,012 voting precincts where residents go to cast their ballots—we know; it’s complicated.)
Where is my precinct?
You can find a map at the Harris County website (harriscountytx.gov), but keep in mind the court redraws/gerrymanders the boundaries of those districts every 10 years—yes, there have been lawsuits over that sort of thing—so they’re subject to change.
When are elections?
Vote for your precinct’s county commission during March primaries when they roll around every two years, and again in November elections. In this election cycle, however, the next Precinct 1 commissioner won’t be elected so much as chosen (more on this coming up).
Who is Gene Locke?
A partner at Andrews Kurth and longtime friend of Lee’s, Locke’s best known for running against fellow Democrat Annise Parker in the 2009 mayoral elections. He served as city attorney from 1995 to 1998 and pals around with Republicans and Democrats alike.
Who will replace him?
That’s a good question. Locke has lately shown interest in the position, which has come as a surprise to Judge Emmett, who purposefully appointed someone who wouldn’t seek it out. One thing is certain: The person who takes office will be a Democrat.
Why will it be a Democrat?
No Republicans ran for the seat during the March primaries, as they didn’t have the necessary time to get anyone on the primary ballot after Lee’s death. (There were no Republicans on the ballot before Lee’s death because Lee ran uncontested for years and was basically unbeatable after three decades on the court.) Neither did the Democrats have time to change course, which is why Lee’s was the only name on the ballot, and he was elected—posthumously—as their candidate. So this November, the ballot will feature a slot for the Democratic candidate only, with a replacement for Lee chosen by the Harris County Democratic Party chairs from Precinct 1.
So... which Democrat will it be?
We have to wait until June to see who the party nominates to run unopposed: Locke, State Senator Rodney Ellis, Houston City Councilman C.O. Bradford or any other number of hopefuls looking to grab one of the most high-power, sought-after jobs in local politics.