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County judges criticize Abbott, state

Tuesday, September 21, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Over the past 18 months, county judges – especially the chief executives of Texas’ largest counties – have faced an array of unprecedented challenges. Joshua Fechter, urban affairs reporter for The Texas Tribune, had a virtual sit-down with five of the county judges Monday as part of the Texas Tribune Festival, to discuss what they have faced during that time.

The county judges – Andy Brown of Travis County, Lina Hidalgo of Harris County, Clay Jenkins of Dallas County, Ricardo Samaniego of El Paso County, and Glen Whitley of Tarrant County – have all dealt with the ongoing crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic, with no end in sight. They also struggled to help their constituents deal with February’s unprecedented winter storm and loss of power.

Of the five, only Whitley is a Republican – and Whitley is the only one of the five not litigating Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting mask mandates. He said his attorneys had advised him that the governor had the authority to issue the anti-mask order. Nevertheless, Whitley joined the other judges in stating his disagreement with Abbott.

“I do not agree at all with taking away local control from judges. We’re a huge state, 254 counties.” Whitley said local control has been a Republican tenet for years. “So it greatly disturbs me that we have state leadership that is throwing local control out the window.”

Even though Tarrant County’s attorneys have told him Abbott had the authority to issue the order on masks, Whitley said he believes the governor is driven by politics alone. “To me,” he said, “instead of focusing on the folks in the pandemic, they have focused on the politics of the issue. Just let the local folks do what they do best and get politics out of this deal.” Whitley said he had given the governor his opinion on the matter but to no avail.

All of the judges agreed that more Texans know who they are now and know more about the role of a county judge. Jenkins and Hidalgo both said they now have a security detail, which was not necessary before the pandemic and the accompanying ideological battles.

Brown, who was elected in November 2020, noted that he had been in office just about two months when the governor sued him for the first time. But the publicity hasn’t been all bad, Brown said, because people now realize that they can reach out to the county judge to get things done.

Discussing the pandemic as well as Winter Storm Uri, Brown said, “We cannot rely on state leadership to deal with disasters that are coming more and more frequently.” When Travis County received Covid-19 vaccines, the state did not provide guidance on how to distribute them. He reached out to County Judge Hidalgo to get her advice. She told him he had to have a plan. As a result, he said, Travis County “put together one of the biggest mass vaccination efforts” in the state.

There was no plan at the state level, Brown said, adding, “I think that same thing happened with the winter storm.” The state was not ready for the freeze and people were left without power and water in Austin. Brown credited the chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, W. Nim Kidd, for providing a certain amount of water, but Travis County also got water from neighboring states as well as Mexico. That’s “an example of us cleaning up a problem that was caused by a failure at the state level,” he said. He put the blame on ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

County Judge Jenkins noted that ERCOT has gotten a lot of blame, but “ERCOT is a vendor hired by the Public Utility Commission and the PUC is appointed by the governor. So all this gets back to our governor and our state Legislature. Two years before this happened, during the Legislature I testified … about the need to replace and modernize the gas pipeline system. The gas pipeline system froze; they caused this mess to happen. ERCOT did a bad job …. But it’s like blaming air traffic controllers for not being able to handle a bunch of planes that didn’t have any winterization on them. This falls clearly on our state.”

Jenkins said city employees had trained for a massive power outage in the summertime and used that training to help during the winter storm. He said Dallas was fortunate not to lose its water system, and that situation occurred “because our state lacked the foresight to design a power system that would keep the lights on whether it was cold or hot.”

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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