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Lesley Briones names public safety, flood control as top priorities as Precinct 4 Commissioner

Briones will take office as Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 4 on January 1, 2023.

Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media
Harris County Commissioner-elect for Precinct 4 Lesley Briones, November 30, 2022.

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What questions do you have for Commissioner-elect Lesley Briones? Tweet your questions to Aschneider_HPM. We'll send them to the commissioner-elect and present her answers in future stories.

Former Harris County civil court judge Lesley Briones will be sworn in as Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 4 on New Year's Day, 2023. When she takes office, it will be the first time Democrats have held a 4-1 majority on the commissioners court since the 1970s. Houston Public Media spoke with Briones about her top priorities and how she plans to work with her colleagues on commissioners court.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you see as the main challenges facing Harris County in general and Precinct 4 in particular?

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So, the issues I am most excited and eager to tackle are, number one, continuing to make improvements in public safety. Two, and this goes for Harris County wide and for Precinct 4, flood mitigation, really continuing to make progress. Precinct 4, as you know, has a substantial portion of West Harris County. So those will be two of the top issues that we begin working on as soon as we take office in January. And then as a macro principle, continuing to show all residents in Harris County that the government is working for them and for all of them. So, continuing to build this relationship, not only county wide, but working with all the cities in Precinct 4 and trying to keep delivering results for all the people that we’re serving.

Democrats and Republicans on Commissioners Court both have been arguing that public safety is a priority for them, but they have very different approaches to that issue. What do you see as the best way of approaching the problem with public safety?

So let me give you my kind of where I’m coming from, as an individual. I’ve been the victim of crime various times, since I was a child, throughout my adult years, and I am the mother of three young daughters. So, I take public safety very seriously and stand proudly with law enforcement. To me, what that translates into what I want to do when taking office is, first, building as collaborative of a relationship with the constables that overlap with Precinct 4, as well as the Sheriff’s Office, to make sure that we’re working in as coordinated fashion as possible. As we know, there’s over 75 law enforcement agencies in this region, and the former COO in me — I was the chief operating officer for national nonprofit — it’s how can we come together to make sure that we are best leveraging data information technology to best improve public safety in Harris County. That’s one way, this coordination.

Second, I’m very interested in seeing the impact of microzoning. It’s shown positive effects in Dallas. We are beginning to use it here in Harris County. I want to study the impact it’s having and how we can potentially scale it.

For people who are not familiar with that, what exactly is microzoning?

It’s essentially taking a very surgical, purposeful approach to where the centers of violent crime — we can see where the violent crime is happening across Harris County — and then making sure we’re using a very targeted approach in those areas so that we can best address violent crime and leverage resources, both the men and women who are serving, as well as the technology and resources.

I’m also very excited about really digging into the Holistic Assistance Response program and seeing how we might be able to scale that, because the Harris County Jail should not be one of the biggest mental health providers. And speaking to that point of leverage, we need our law enforcement officers leveraged and focused on violent crime. If something is more of a mental illness-related issue or homelessness or addiction related issue, we need individuals who are trained in mental health response through the Holistic Assistance Response Team to address those, again, so that we’re best leveraging the resources we have. So those are some of the ideas — I’m happy to go on — but the number one issue I will be addressing when I take office is public safety.

Apart from making sure that the Harris County Jail is dealing with the problem of mental health, what are some of the other approaches that you’re that you’re looking at in dealing with the jail?

So, several approaches. One, we need to address the overcrowding issue, and how we’re going to address that. Two, there’s approximately 350 to 400 open spots in the Sheriff’s Office. Some of those are a part of the jail. Others are investigators. There’s different roles that the Sheriff’s Office is looking to fill. We need to make sure that we are recruiting and retaining the talent to fill the open positions that have already been approved and funded. So, I think that will be of paramount importance to make sure we have the individuals we need present in the jails to make sure that we have the safest conditions, and that's safe for both the individuals working in the jail as well as safe for the individuals who are in the jail. So those are some of the ideas.

Again, as a macro principle, I just cannot wait to be able to sit down with all of the key stakeholders, the Sheriff’s Office, and just really dig in to what are the key opportunities for improvement and how do we get there…I was a judge. I was a civil court judge. So, my perspective in life generally is going (to be) listening, hearing all sides of a particular issue...then making a ruling based on all the facts and evidence. So, I want to dig in, listen, and learn more. Because there’s people who are living and leading these issues, and I want to make sure that I’m getting the input and listening in a meaningful way to the best ideas and the best solutions that are available to us.

One of the issues that featured fairly strongly in a lot of the Harris County campaigns, particularly for criminal court judges, was the issue of felony bail and felony bail reform. Where do you stand on the issue of felony bail reform?

First of all, I think it’s imperative that we have a very clear conversation on misdemeanor bail reform, which is in play (and) is working, as we have seen by an independent third party monitor, as part of the O’Donnell Consent Decree, I’m very much in favor of misdemeanor bail reform. It is helping taxpayers. That is actually reducing recidivism. That is working, I want to continue honing misdemeanor bail reform in Harris County. As for felony bail reform, that is a separate issue that is in play, but doesn’t really exist. And so, I think some of the challenges that we saw throughout the election was this conflation of what misdemeanor bail reform versus felony charges. And I want to focus on misdemeanor bail reform and continuing to improve its impact on Harris County. Again, going back to me being a victim, if anyone is a threat to public safety, those are very different cases than someone on a nonviolent, low-level offense.

So, I just want to make sure again, we’re having very clear conversations based on facts and evidence. And, again, I want to dig in and listen to all sides of the argument, so to speak. But at the end of the day, we need to keep every everyone safe. And we need to also protect people’s constitutional rights. So how do we follow the law? And there’s the role of the judiciary, and then there’s the role of the Legislature. As a future commissioner, I will neither be on the judiciary nor at the state level being able to change laws. So again, this is a partnership between different branches of government working together to continue to drive Harris County and Texas forward and make it a safe, thriving place to raise kids.

Shifting gears to your other major priority, obviously Precinct 4 suffered from severe flooding, particularly during Harvey. What do you see as some of the necessary solutions?

One, I believe in starting with the basics. So, ditch maintenance is something that needs to be done in a much more regular, purposeful, systematic way, throughout Precinct 4. There are certain areas where the ditches have not been maintained as regularly, which of course exacerbates the flow of water and exacerbates the rising of water and then affects the conveyance. So, making sure when I take charge day one, which is another broad point, I’m committed to delivering on the basics with excellence — whether that’s filling potholes, sidewalks, or park, maintenance, all of that. But going back to flooding, ditch maintenance...that’s a quick, short, low hanging fruit.

Two, I’m extremely interested in exploring where we can add additional neighborhood detention basins that can help with flood mitigation in terms of the absorption of the water, but additionally can be a win-win for the communities that they’re placed in and serve as a green space, maximizing that green natural infrastructure, but also serving as a park of sorts, which would of course also have the physical and mental health benefits for the individuals in those neighborhoods. So, identifying where additional detention basins would best protect the individuals who live around it in terms of the absorption of the water. But yes, Precinct 4 was severely impacted as we know during Harvey and the other storms.

Lastly, I want to dig in into the longer term solutions which is you know, digging into this next phase of the study of the deep tunnel system, for example, (the) Ike dike and other longer term projects. But I’m committed to working with all the different cities in the region, the county, and working with the state and federal government because this is very much an all-hands-on-deck (situation), and there’s short, mid- and longer term solutions.

We all have our stories of how we’ve been affected, and this is going to be a consistent problem. So, we need to address it in a meaningful way. And then there’s the additional, ongoing effort to make sure we’re completing the projects of the original $2.5 billion flood bond, which is, we know, only approximately 20% of the projects have been completed. So really, assessing where those are and making sure that we’re delivering on what we’re telling the public we are doing (is important).

What about non flood-related infrastructure? What do you see the precinct's financial needs being for things like road construction?

We have over 1,400 miles of roads. We have 48 parks. And so...there’s so much opportunity to continue building on the work. And I very much appreciate Commissioner (Jack) Cagle's service. And he has been extremely helpful during this transition. So, we actually met earlier today, and we’re diving into all of the parks and the different needs we’re hearing from the community. But that really ranges from making sure that when there’s a pothole it is taken care of, when it’s a more manageable size to eventually save taxpayers money before it gets larger and more costly to address.

Making sure that customer service is first and foremost. To those areas that do not have sidewalks, as in addition to being a mom, I used to be an eighth and tenth grade teacher, and many of my students used to walk to school, and we need to make sure that our kids have a safe way to walk to school. So, thinking of infrastructure, I take it back to public safety, frankly. We need to be safe. And so, we’re walking to school, walking home from school, or getting to our places of worship and work. I’m also going to look at it from, again, a safety perspective, in (terms of) where are we having the most accidents. Where do we need to potentially widen the roads (to) create different signals that would increase public safety on our roads?

So, looking at it again, from this intersectional perspective, the parks, trying to make them the cleanest, most user friendly parks, and again, I cannot wait to dig in. And we will be purposeful and having town halls across the precinct to hear, again, from the community members. What is it they want to see in the parks closest to them? What improvements would be most meaningful to the community? And so, making sure we’re keeping those in tip-top shape, because to me, we must deliver these fundamentals with excellence and make sure that we’re listening to the community and having that feedback loop so that we’re being as responsive as possible.

You’re going to be joining a court with a for the first time in many, many years, a 4-1 Democratic majority. How do you see yourself as working with your new colleagues, particularly the one non-Democratic member of the court?

Harris County Precinct 4
Precinct 4, which will be represented by Lesley Briones, has a population of more than 1.2 million people.

I’m committed to working with everyone on the court. And broadly, I’m committed to serving everyone, I am thinking of it the way I did when I was on the bench. When I was one of your civil court judges, I wore a black robe, not a blue robe, not a red robe, or any other color. And my job was to sit there listen with an open mind, and listen to all the facts and evidence, and then make a decision that I thought was in the best interest of justice. I will figuratively wear that black robe in terms of listening to all sides, working as collaboratively as possible with all sides, and then making the decision based on the evidence. That is what I believe in the best interests are Precinct 4.

So that’s how I see my role. I’m going to bring my judge self meets my teacher self, mom’s self, concerned community member self to bear, and I will always advocate and make decisions that I see are in the best interests of Precinct 4. So, I look forward to working with all members of the court, and again, with different the cities and the surrounding counties in the state and federal government to make sure that we’re moving forward, because I think at the end of the day, people want a government that works and that is helping to improve people’s day-to-day lives. And that’s what I believe government should do. And I will do my best every day to make sure I’m living out in what I believe is the purpose of when someone is a public servant.

Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew Schneider is the senior reporter for politics and government at Houston Public Media, NPR's affiliate station in Houston, Texas. In this capacity, he heads the station's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments...

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