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One year in, Eckhardt looks forward to new challenges

Tuesday, January 5, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

As 2015 came to a close, the first woman elected to wield the gavel at Travis County Commissioners Court surveyed her historic first year on the job with confident satisfaction.

“It was really good, I think. I think we achieved a lot of our objectives,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Austin Monitor during a lengthy chat in her office last week.

The conversation covered a sweeping number of policy topics – including water, land use, affordability and transportation – and also touched on the biggest and, perhaps for Eckardt, the most disappointing story out of Travis County this year: the narrow defeat of the $287 million bond proposition to build a new civil and family courts complex in downtown Austin.

Eckhardt explained that when she took office in January, she inherited the proposal to build a 14-story courthouse at West Fourth and Guadalupe streets. When voters rejected the idea in November, they simply reset the planning process.

“The silver lining is that, now that it failed, we can go back to the drawing board and re-envision how we deliver civil and criminal justice, put together a new proposal and put that into the pipe,” Eckhardt said.

She revealed to the Monitor that, as one potential “Band-Aid” option to relieve pressure on the aging and overcrowded Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, the county is now looking into acquiring space in the old federal courthouse building on West Eighth Street.

“If we could get that space, we might look at ways that we could carve off pieces [of the civil court system] to extend the life of the Heman Marion Sweatt, to give us even more time to think through what we need over the next 30 years,” said Eckhardt. “We definitely need more space – there is no doubt we need more space.”

Eckhardt said the county is in talks with the federal General Services Administration to explore whether it can buy or lease the building, which has sat empty since the opening of the new federal courthouse adjacent to the site where the civil courts complex would have risen.

The unusual arrangement of providing civil court functions in multiple locations squares with Eckhardt’s insistence on finding new and efficient ways to deliver government services. Summing up one of her top achievements in 2015, Eckhardt said, “We’ve really made strides, I think, in encouraging a corporate culture at Travis County in civil and criminal justice to say, ‘Listen, don’t be afraid to look under the hood and see if it actually worked.’”

She said that Travis is one of the most innovative counties in Texas but still lags behind Bexar County in its deployment of a sobriety center and Harris County and its mental health programs for inmates. However, Eckhardt noted that those matters will both be top priorities going into 2016.

Two other changes in store for 2016 will be aimed at increasing efficiency at the county level. The gears are moving on the creation of both a public information office as well as the job title of county administrator. The former would ideally improve the county’s communications channels with its residents (and save other county staff members the anxiety of fielding phone calls from reporters), while the latter will lighten the load on the Commissioners Court.

“It’s very difficult to be the county administrator and the chief policy analyst and the chief political spokesperson,” Eckhardt explained. “I don’t want to whine. I like all three of those jobs. It would be very difficult for me to let go of them to somebody else – but in all reality, I don’t think that’s actually appropriate.”

Eckhardt also said that 2016 will bring changes to how developers build in Travis County. She said that recent revisions to Chapter 82 of the county code will affect land-use permitting. Eckhardt said it will be one more “tool in the toolbox” to encourage developers to build connected, sustainable communities. (She also noted that she hates that tired metaphor.)

Eckhardt insisted that the county and other local governments must do their part to connect communities. She also defended her decision in May not to support the CAMPO 2040 Regional Transportation Plan, a sweeping road map of mostly road projects that the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization will deploy in the coming decades.

“I voted against it because it had stripped out policy statements that I had busted my hump to get in there,” explained Eckhardt. “I thought that it was unnecessary brain damage to take them out. I thought that the overall plan was sort of a hodgepodge, a bad mulligan stew. The preamble had very mindful, realistic statements about the challenges that we face, and then the list of projects behind that preamble was a status quo ante, build-till-you-run-out-of-cash type of plan.”

Eckhardt said she will continue to work with CAMPO and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to push what she says is essentially a matter of economic justice.

“The biggest impact I can have,” said Eckhardt, “is to get a really good road network east of I-35, to keep working with the (regional mobility authority) and at CAMPO to get transit beyond Cap Metro’s service area, and connect these communities so that not only can their people get into Austin where the jobs are, but also these other municipalities can start attracting real economic opportunity inside themselves.”

With those kinds of daunting challenges ahead, Eckhardt isn’t backing down. “I love my job,” she said.

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