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Gómez: Longest-serving commissioner finding new ways of doing business

Tuesday, December 28, 2021 by Andrew Logan

With new members on the court this past year, Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez has been rethinking the court’s longtime processes. (Ann Howard, who represents Precinct 3, assumed office at the start of 2021, while County Judge Andy Brown assumed office in late 2020.)

Gómez, who was elected in 1994 and is the longest-serving commissioner on the court, was the first Mexican American woman to hold her position.

One of the great success stories from this past year is the collaborative effort it took to set up the Covid vaccination center at Circuit of the Americas. Travis County partnered with neighboring counties such as Caldwell, Bastrop and Hays, as well as health care providers Ascension Health and Central Health, to set up a very successful clinic.

“I feel fantastic about it,” Gómez said. “To bring all these groups together, they each have a role in it and they all kind of work together. They had to figure out what was the best way. … It was fantastic.”

This collaboration has continued to the pop-up clinics, Gómez said.

“The whole thing was to make sure that when the constable and this team goes out, that people will trust them when they tell them that this is a good vaccine for you,” she said.

“It’s taken a lot to convince people to make sure that the vaccine is good for them, that it’s not going to damage them, and it’s not going to affect their health in the future.”

Another big issue the court reexamined is the criminal justice system, Gómez said.

“Time goes by and we move along to other issues, and you have to kind of really put the brakes on sometimes,” Gómez said. ”Let’s look at what we’ve been doing for a while now.”

In a delay spearheaded by Brown and Howard, the Commissioners Court put on hold plans to build a new women’s jail after public backlash from members of the community and advocacy groups in June 2021. The new correctional facility would have cost $80 million, which was part of a larger $600 million master plan developed in 2016 to improve operational efficiencies in the Travis County correctional system, including a 20-year bed space projection to accommodate future inmate population. 

The new Commissioners Court “is like a whole new page of doing business,” Gómez said. “We bought some time to rethink the need for additional beds and especially the way it’s been done before.”

Another challenge the Commissioners Court faced this year was homelessness.

“It’s not a county issue. It wasn’t our issue at all. It’s the city’s issue, but obviously it affects everybody,” Gómez said. 

When the county received $247 million from the American Rescue Plan Act this year, the Commissioners Court allocated $110 million of those funds with the goal to rehouse 3,000 people over the next three years.

However, the county still had its own problems it needs money to solve, such as the flooding in southeastern Travis County. When it rains, water travels downhill from the city into Del Valle and outside city limits; Gómez said this flooding affects many homes and businesses, which the county is responsible for addressing.

Gómez is working with staffers to get an exact number on how much it would cost to take care of the flooding permanently. She hopes to use some of the remaining money from the ARPA funds to finance the project.

Next year, Gómez faces a challenger in the Democratic primary. In June 2021, Susanna Woody announced she would be running for commissioner for Precinct 4.

“It doesn’t matter to me who runs against me, I always run scared. I make sure that I don’t take anything for granted, that I don’t take anyone for granted, and that I touch base with everybody to make sure that they’re still there,” Gómez said. “I make sure that they know I’m still interested in getting their vote. And if they are displeased, please tell me, you know, because we can talk about this.”

Gómez said she’s running because she thinks she knows enough about the district and the city that she can still be part of making sure things work for people who are here already.

Although the primary is in March 2022, she has already started setting goals for next year.

“I’m looking for better conditions for taxpayers. I really hope that we get more housing, more affordable housing for people who are in the lower working class, and also the middle class,” Gómez said. “It just almost appears like we don’t have housing for those folks, and my fear is every time that the city grows, more of our people get pushed out. They can’t afford to live here anymore. I’m not very fond of that idea, so we’ll see what happens.”

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

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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