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County scrambles to address tech chief’s departure

Tuesday, July 24, 2012 by Michael Kanin

With the veteran head of Travis County’s Information Technology Services department set to retire Wednesday, the members of the Travis County Commissioners Court are not ready to appoint even his interim replacement.


The situation has prompted a court item for today’s commissioners meeting that could temporarily divide departing Information Technology Chief Joe Harlow’s duties between three of his top deputies. The action is described on the agenda as an item that would “address immediate leadership needs.”


“My preference would be to appoint somebody at the top of that department immediately,” County Judge Sam Biscoe told In Fact Daily. With Harlow’s retirement, Biscoe added, “a lot of employees will wonder who to go to.”


Commissioners have known for some time that they would need to fill Harlow’s position, which pays about $162,000 per year. Questions about his replacement are inextricably linked to what some would argue is a necessary reorganization of the county’s Information Technology department. This has complicated the issue of recruiting Harlow’s replacement, as Commissioner Ron Davis has repeatedly voted against or abstained from voting on most county management reorganization items.


Indeed, earlier this year, while casting a rare vote in support of a reorganizational move – the transfer of the county’s Facilities Management Department to a new executive supervisor – Davis noted his reluctance to vote on reorganizational issues. I can support this particular move, and — and as you know, I’ve really — I’m really not a real big proponent of a whole bunch of organizational things,” he told his colleagues at a March 2012 meeting.


Davis’ objections – and those of Commissioner Margaret Gomez – date back to issues surrounding the 2009 dismissal of former County Executive for Administrative Operations Alicia Perez and her one-time deputy, former County Human Resources head Linda Moore Smith. Davis and Gomez still harbor concerns about the pair’s dismissal – which came after Smith and Perez had fractious disagreements – and have opposed items that might restructure county management in a way that might void Perez’ former position. 


A further complication could develop today since both commissioners Sarah Eckhardt and Karen Huber will be away from the dais on vacation. The absence of the pair leaves Biscoe, Davis, and Gomez to make any decision on Harlow’s immediate replacement.


Though Biscoe suggested that either of his colleagues could ask to postpone today’s potential action, he said Monday that he doesn’t know what their thoughts might be regarding this issue. The Court typically grants a professional courtesy postponement of a week for commissioners to further review items.


According to Biscoe, a full-time interim replacement for Harlow could be as many as eight weeks away. He argues that, because Harlow’s interim replacement could serve in that capacity for as much as a year, commissioners should have the opportunity to interview potential candidates for that role.


Biscoe added that though the county has opened up the interim position to internal candidates, it is his belief that Harlow’s interim replacement would come from outside of the county. He noted that he believes that a “strong majority” of his colleagues agree with him on that position.


The county will turn to a consulting firm to help it select Harlow’s permanent replacement. The firm may also address reorganization issues associated with Travis’ Information Technology department. Commissioners have yet to select a firm for that work.


In addition to the temporary Information Technology leadership action, Commissioners will also vote on whether to reassign Harlow’s department to the supervision of County Executive for Planning and Budget Leslie Browder. Information Technology had been under the purview of the former Administrative Operations division.


Another former Administrative Operations department, Facilities Management was also recently re-designated as Browder’s responsibility. That department, under Facilities head Roger El-Khoury has also been a political hot potato. At the time of its reassignment to Browder, Huber expressed no small amount of reservation.


“I do not think it’s fair – as politically charged internally as this department is – to put this under a brand new, on the job less than a month, county executive,” she said. “(It’s) unconscionable to me.” (See In Fact Daily, March 21, 2012.)

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