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County departments argue over blame for court reporting issues

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Bureaucratic infighting over where the blame lies for inaccuracies in local judicial statistical reports that Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir sends to the state Supreme Court boiled over into the Travis County Commissioners’ Court on Tuesday. There, though DeBeauvoir and retiring county Information Technology head Joe Harlow both insisted that needed corrections in the process were underway, it was clear that the problem had not been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.


DeBeauvoir lobbed criticism directly at court members. “I pleaded three times with this court to come forward and help me with this,” she said. “I received no response from anyone, so I went and established an OCA (Office of Court Administration) committee.”


That committee addresses issues related to the office’s judicial reporting troubles.


DeBeauvoir’s testimony came after a Tuesday memo which offered to correct documents DeBeauvoir said were provided to the court by Harlow’s department—items she suggests she’d seen only Monday. “I noted that their handout not only needed some clarification but also failed to give the Travis County Office of Court Administration the credit they deserve for generously offering their time and expertise, and for already putting together a committee to resolve this issue.”


The issue, as DeBeauvoir puts it, is over the inaccurate reporting of county court caseloads and performance statistics. As first reported in the Austin American Statesman on Nov. 3, “monthly reports (DeBeauvoir) gets from county information technology staff had inaccurate numbers and were so far off that they contained statistics showing that the number of theft cases during a two-month period was below zero.”


In court, DeBeauvoir suggested that the software firm used by her office to deliver those statistics was unreliable. “Tiburon was not going to give the county what it should have supplied,” she said.


She added that her office had taken steps to address the matter on its own. “We’ve already had two meetings of the OCA committee,” she added. “I’m pleased and proud to report that ITS has now joined our effort…The things that I asked for from the court, I was able to go and get set up about two weeks ago.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt made a motion to formalize DeBeauvoir’s ad hoc committee. She also called for a performance audit of the reporting system. “This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this,” she said before listing off a series of court departments that have exhibited what she considers similar issues. “This is a continuing problem.”


DeBeauvoir said that her team could have the audit ready in 90 days.


After the hearing, Eckhardt addressed the length of time that it took for the data concerns to come before commissioners. “The reason the item took so long to come to court is that there was reason to believe that county staff and affected elected officials were moving toward solution without court intervention. And indeed, that has proven to be the case,” she told In Fact Daily via email. “I am confident that the OCA committee that has been formed (which has direct representation from the County Clerk’s Office as well as indirect representation from the District Clerk’s Office and all civil and criminal courts) will meet with…success.”


Eckhardt then turned what she called a related matter. “The Commissioners Court is pressing ahead with the hiring of a Change Management firm to review our current Information Technology practices, make recommendations for improvement, and assist us with hiring a new IT Executive Director,” she wrote. “I look forward to building a capable, reliable and service oriented IT department that coordinates and maximizes the efforts of all 43 of our elected offices.”


For his part, Harlow remained mostly quiet during the hearing. He placed the date of origin for the issues “last summer when the reports started showing some negative numbers.” He told the court that “we’re making progress.”


DeBeauvoir agreed. “We’re working,” she said.

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