Election day is only a month away, and the airwaves are starting to be choked with political advertisements. Most of us received a grounding in the duties of state and national officials while in school, and can recall them well enough to guide our choices there. County offices, however, a something of a different story. Few people really know what they are electing county officials to accomplish. The is one local race contested in the upcoming election – that of County Commissioner. Perhaps it’s time to review the duties of that position.
Many years ago, I helped screen questions for a “Meet the Candidates” forum. The first five or six submitted for County Commissioners concerned the ability of the candidates to manage heavy equipment, build roads and maintain bridges. While this is certainly part of the commissioners’ duties, it is by no means the entire job.
Probably the least well known part of the commissioners’ responsibilities is the work done when they are sitting as the Board of Directors for the corporation known as Nolan County. Most of their agendas look very ordinary and uneventful, but their responsibilities are widespread. Decisions range from declaring Awareness Months for various causes to setting the budget and tax rate for the county. They make purchases of computer systems, heating and cooling systems, and maintain the courthouse. Many of their actions are limited by laws, most of which can be found in the Local Government Code. They are also governed by the Public Information Act, which includes regulations about open meetings and open records. In some cases, they can pass ordinances and land use regulations.
While they do not have the authority to hire or fire individuals other than those on their precinct crews, they do have the authority to appoint persons to fill vacancies in most county elected offices. By their control of the purse strings, they limit the number of employees any particular office may have, as well as the expenses of each office. They set salaries for officials and employees, as well as making decisions about retirement plans and insurance benefits. It would seem reasonable that each elected official could sign contracts for goods and services pertaining to their departments, but that is not the case. State law provides that only the County Commissioners Court may approve the execution of a contract. As a result, they examine contracts for everything from the purchase of janitorial supplies to law books.
The Commissioners Court is responsible for providing buildings for use as government offices, libraries, and health units, among other purposes. They may exercise control over the physical buildings, determining which offices will be housed where, as well as making decisions regarding maintenance and upkeep. They may lease extra space – if available- to other entities, and they may lease space as necessary.
The Commissioners Court is the entity which actually holds elections. While the Tax Assessor-Collector manages the registration and the County Clerk administers it, the authority comes from the Court. They have the right to call special elections, appoint election judges, and, as with the spending of any tax dollars, approve payment of the expenses. They were required to approve the purchase of the new machines, and will have to hand count a set number of votes when the election is completed, called canvassing the ballots.
Once the County Judge and the Auditor prepare a draft budget, the Commissioners Court holds hearings with each office to fine-tune it. Final authority for the budget and the tax rate falls on their shoulders.
In addition to all this, the Commissioners Court is responsible for the coliseum, the library, and an assortment of things pertaining to the public health and welfare. They oversee the health department, the child welfare board, help fund Juvenile Probation and appoint a representative to that board, provide a jail for the Sheriff to oversee, and are generally responsible for keeping the county running smoothly. Time wise, most spend more hours and sweat on these tasks than on the roads of their precincts!
The most commonly discussed duty of County Commissioners is the responsibility for the condition of county roads within their precincts. They also make decisions concerning opening or closing roads, installing culverts, replacing bridges and the like. Because of their familiarity with their precincts, they can normally be found, with their crews, assisting with fire fighting, disaster clean up, or other chores as needed by the people.
County Commissioners have one of the largest jobs in the courthouse, from managing money to managing men and machines. It’s a job most of us would never want!
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .