In-Depth

Why Harris County Leaders Created The Position Of County Administrator

Harris County was the only large county in Texas without an appointed administrator or manager — until now.

Harris County Administrator David Berry.

Last week, Harris County Commissioners Court voted three-to-two along party lines to create a new position: county administrator. The first person named to the post was David Berry, who for the moment also retains his prior role as the county's chief budget officer.

However, the appointment was not without controversy, so Houston Public Media spoke with Berry about why Harris County needed this role and what exactly a county administrator does.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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What exactly does a county administrator do?

A county administrator is an official who's appointed to manage the day-to-day operations of the county government that reports up to commissioners court. So, the elected officials set policy. They set strategic direction. What they're looking for is someone to make sure those policies are effectively carried out and delivering results.

How common is it to have a county administrator in Texas as opposed to just the county judge and commissioners?

It's very common, particularly among the larger counties, because that's where we see the level of complexity and number of departments, where it gets pretty unwieldy not to have an administrator.

Harris County has managed without a county administrator for many, many years. What's the thinking behind creating the position now?

I actually think the budget officers in Harris County, and myself included, have in the past fulfilled a lot of this role. So, there's a gentleman named Dick Raycraft who was the budget officer for Harris County for 30 years. And I think folks would agree that he ran the county. My predecessor, Bill Jackson, did a lot more than just the budget, as have I been asked to do in my time at the county.

And why now? I think it really is a testament to the challenges and problems we face as a county, which are not getting easier. We serve 4.7 million people in Harris County. That's the size of a state. And when you look at problems like flooding and public health, these are problems that are pretty hard to tackle when you have 20 different county departments reporting up to five different people — which can become a pretty unwieldy structure. So, I think Judge Lina Hidalgo and other members of commissioners court felt some urgency to formalize the role of the budget office that had been longstanding and to modernize the organizational structure.

There were a number of objections that the Republican county commissioners and a number of the people who came in to testify raised when they were talking about creating the position of county administrator. In particular, one of the issues that came up was that it would simply add another layer of bureaucracy. How do you respond to people who raise concerns like that?

Right now, we're in a situation where there are 20 different departments in Harris County that report up to five individuals on commissioners court. Those individuals meet every two or three weeks, and they all have other jobs. Judge Hidalgo, for example, is not only the chief executive of the county, but she's also the disaster executive. And each of the commissioners run their own precincts. So, they have a lot on their plate.

I think this is commissioners court taking part of their job, that oversight of departments, and saying, “We want one point of contact.” And to me, that's not adding bureaucracy. It’s trying to work in a more effective way. I mean, no company that I know of is set up to where you have 20 leaders reporting to five people. And I think there's a reason that all the other big Texas counties have moved to having an administrator or manager. And when you look around the country, every county with more than 3 million people, except Harris County, has an appointed administrator or manager. So, I think this is us catching up with the times to work in an effective way. My hope is to develop a way of working and delivering results, and I think that'll be the way to persuade people.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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