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County to seek new chief information officer

Wednesday, August 29, 2012 by Michael Kanin

After weeks of sometimes-contentious debate, four members of Travis County’s Commissioners Court agreed Tuesday to seek a permanent replacement for the departing head of the county’s Information Technology Department, Joe Harlow.


Harlow retired last month. Only Commissioner Ron Davis, who abstained, failed to vote for the plan.


County staffers had also asked commissioners to explore an assessment and potential restructuring of Harlow’s former department. With their action, commissioners opted to revisit that concept sometime after they’ve got in place their new head of Information Technology.


“I’ve been mulling over this matter for the last several months,” said County Judge Sam Biscoe. “My recommendation would be that we go ahead and start the process to find a chief information officer and that we leave that assessment money exactly where it is, and that after we have gotten the permanent chief information officer on-board, and given that person the opportunity to work with the current managers, that we try to do an appropriate assessment at that point.”


While Harlow’s retirement had been long-rumored, the county was left without a succession plan when Harlow finally announced his departure. The commissioners found themselves scrambling to figure out how they should approach the process to name a replacement (see In Fact Daily, July 24, 2012). 


Commissioners discussed a handful of options for Harlow’s replacement. These included a restructuring to bring in a temporary chief information officer who would oversee departmental changes. At the conclusion of that process – an estimated six to nine months – the county would hire a permanent Information head who, under that scenario, would take over after the conclusion of restructuring.


However, that proposal bumped up against two factors. The first is lingering concern from Davis and Commissioner Margaret Gomez about any executive-level county restructuring that might erode the standing of the executive position of the county’s Administrative Operations, which has been vacant since the heated departure of Alicia Perez.


The second was reportedly over the cost of the interim restructuring model. Earlier this month, Travis County Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes pitched a combination package that was guaranteed to top out at no more than $375,000. Grimes also told Commissioners that they had lost out on an opportunity to negotiate a deal for $200,000 because they’d waited too long to take action. (See In Fact Daily, August 13, 2012.)


The decision over the CIO hiring process was made more difficult by dissension among officials about how to proceed. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt offered a summation of it all three weeks ago: “We are undergoing some growing pains, and there is a lot of turf war, frankly, going on within our organization with regard to who controls what.”


In contrast to previous hearings on the matter, commissioners made relatively quick work of Tuesday’s decision about their plans to fill the chief information officer position. Commissioner Karen Huber, who had pushed for an assessment-first approach, explained her change of opinion.


She referred to the recent removal of County Auditor Susan Spataro and the pending retirement of County Budget Director Leroy Nellis. “I think that we’ve reached a point where we really need to get some strong leadership,” she said.

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