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Eckhardt charts steady course for 2017

Wednesday, January 4, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt says her administration is moving full speed ahead into the new year.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, Eckhardt said 2017 will be a year of continued progress on long-standing issues, and embracing a new colleague on the Travis County Commissioners Court.

Looking back on 2016, the first female head of the court said, “This was year two of a four-year term. 2015 was a lot of administration building and solidifying. In 2016, we started in earnest on some big projects. I feel like we’re on track.”

Eckhardt, a former commissioner as well as an attorney, did not ditch any of her considerable wonkishness when voters lifted her to her position in 2014. In the ensuing two years, that obsession for technocratic minutiae shows no signs of flagging.

Eckhardt explained to the Monitor that two of her top goals for 2017 include the establishment of a countywide public information office, as well as the creation of a county administrator position, a staff role whose duties would be roughly analogous to a city manager’s.

Both ideas are rooted in an outside performance review of county operations that was published early last year. A sticking point on the PIO has been whether the office’s primary role will be as a public face that spreads awareness of county programs and accomplishments, or as an operation that quietly handles individual open-records requests. Eckhardt says she favors a combination of the two.

As for the county administrator, Eckhardt said she expects that discussion to be “contentious and it’s going to be difficult and it’s a real sea change for us.” She also indicated that newly inaugurated Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion could play a make-or-break role in the talks.

“I’m not in favor of moving forward with a county administrator until there’s a supermajority on the Commissioners Court, because you would be setting up the county administrator for failure if you have a divided court,” she said. Travillion’s predecessor, Ron Davis, was rigidly opposed to the position when it came before the court last year.

As for her general expectations of Travillion, Precinct 1’s first new commissioner since Davis took office in 1998, Eckhardt said she doesn’t believe he will suffer from a steep learning curve.

She added, “I really, really love county governance, because the Commissioners Court does work as a team. Each member does not feel that they only represent their precinct. They represent the whole county.”

Indeed, Travillion has already had a notable influence on the court’s business. In December, he convinced the body to withhold the reappointment of Lakeway Mayor Joe Bain as the county’s representative on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy Board in favor of considering a diverse set of candidates. In her own service on the board, Eckhardt has served as an opposition leader of sorts against the agency’s track record of prioritizing road-building. She revealed to the Monitor that she won’t shy away from that advocacy in 2017.

“We have to change,” she said. “And changing doesn’t mean everyone gets rid of their car and gets on a bus, but it does mean that we really do have to rethink how people get around during the day and what kind of options we have.”

Eckhardt emphatically stated that the Interstate 35 corridor will have to feature managed lanes, bus rapid transit and passenger rail. Last fall, the CAMPO board helped to kill the long-gestating Lone Star Rail District, leaving rail plans between the Austin area and San Antonio in limbo.

Eckhardt warned that the region’s economic health hinges on the construction of a passenger rail line. She revealed that she will spend 2017 “trying to get outside of the Travis County bubble” and among leaders in neighboring communities to learn what can be done to get them on board with the idea.

“I do believe that it is the surrounding counties that will benefit the most from having rapid bus and rail on our major corridors,” she said.

The judge was somewhat dismissive of the Republican-dominated 85th Texas Legislature that kicks off next week. She labeled the rhetoric calling for steps that would make it tougher for cities and counties to raise property taxes “empty,” and cited Travis County’s fiscal discipline and the Commissioners Court’s ability to avoid increasing the tax rate for three years in a row.

Complaining that lawmakers often leave cities and counties footing the bill for essential services, Eckhardt quipped, “Frankly, the legislature is growing increasingly irrelevant to me.” The judge did rain praise on Travis County’s delegation at the State Capitol, including Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin).

At the end of Eckhardt’s brief chat with the Monitor, she disclosed her New Year’s resolutions, which she had recorded in a document on her laptop.

She said she plans to: “Love my children more as they need me less. Share the good and the bad with my friends and family. Connect vulnerability, compassion and strength in my community. Laugh on a regular basis, especially at myself. Make liberal use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Scare the hell out of myself with a good adventure or two.”

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