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Travis County bush

County clerk bristles at sweeping departmental survey

Wednesday, July 20, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted on Tuesday to officially receive a massive third-party study of county departments, delivering in the process what County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir called “a slap in the face.”

DeBeauvoir’s office obtained a copy of the draft report last month. Chief Deputy Clerk Ronald Morgan sent an email to County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s chief of staff, Peter Einhorn, with an attached memorandum that detailed what Morgan called “significant errors” contained in the report.

“We were told by Peter Einhorn that there would not be an opportunity to provide feedback or ask questions about this report,” DeBeauvoir told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday afternoon. “We were pretty much told to leave it alone. It’s none of our business. It was very surprising.”

The court commissioned Public Works LLC last year to conduct an exhaustive survey of the administrative and organizational structures of the 10 county departments that report to the court. The report offered a number of recommendations for retooling the Information Technology Services Department in a way that could significantly affect the way the Clerk’s Office conducts its own IT services.

According to the report, there are more than 200 IT-oriented positions across the county, and only half of them are housed in ITS. That level of decentralization, according to the report, “is not optimal from either an efficiency or effectiveness perspective.”

Among the report’s other findings is a disparity in salaries among IT professionals housed in separate departments. DeBeauvoir and Morgan targeted this section in particular for what Morgan told the court on Tuesday were “significant errors in methodology.”

The memorandum he sent to Einhorn in June details 11 separate issues flagged by the Clerk’s Office regarding that methodology.

For example, it points out that the Public Works report claims that there are seven staff members in the Clerk’s Office with “Tech” in their official title when in fact there is only one. It further disputes the report’s conclusion about the deviation of the Clerk’s Office IT salaries compared to county IT salaries on the whole. The report determined that Clerk’s Office IT professionals are paid on average $112 per year more than their peers, while DeBeauvoir’s memo claims they are in fact paid $5,138.83 per year less.

“I will simply state that it is our belief that the errors identified should be corrected,” Morgan said on Tuesday. “For that reason, we would ask the court to find that this report is not ready for adoption.”

He offered that DeBeauvoir “is willing to collaborate with the court by helping to fund a study that will provide a recommendation to all of us regarding how the relationship should be structured between the office of an elected official, in our case the county Clerk’s Office, and the central service lines under the oversight of the Commissioners Court.”

Eckhardt firmly denied that request, saying, “As a matter of policy, it’s imprudent to ask for a third party to give an unbiased opinion and then ask that opinion to be watered down before they’re able to give it. I believe it is much better practice to receive their final report without filter, then provide it in final draft for us to deliberate, and then we can decide what weight we give it rather than cook the books before serving it.”

Morgan called that position “unfortunate.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty motioned to formally accept the report and invite input from other elected officials, including DeBeauvoir, after that. That passed on a 4-0-1 vote, with Commissioner Ron Davis abstaining.

Morgan said Daugherty’s compromise was “completely reasonable, so long as the understanding is there that the first thing that needs to be bridged … is the chasm that exists with respect to communication, trust and confidence.”

DeBeauvoir suggested to the Monitor that she would draw the line at any attempt to realize any of the report’s recommendations to centralize IT services.

“Centralization is a way to take away the right of the people to have direct contact with the elected official that is providing those services, and it puts in place a backroom office person that has no accountability whatsoever,” said DeBeauvoir. She speculated that centralization would remove from her IT team’s specialized hands the technical aspects of a 21st century election system and place it in the hands of a “backroom bureaucrat who doesn’t know the first thing about conducting it.”

Despite the court’s vote to solicit input about the report from the heads of all county departments, DeBeauvoir worried that it might be too little, too late.

“At this point the court has spoken, and we are in a compromised position, and I don’t know that there’s anything we can do. They’re a very powerful body. They have the ability to ignore and disrespect the other elected officials,” she said. “They do have that ability.”

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