Thursday, May 19, 2016
Posted by: Jeff Nielsen
April 2016 Cover Story
HCA Welcomes Harris County Attorney, Vince Ryan
The Houston Contractors Association was pleased to welcome Mr. Vince Ryan, Harris County Attorney as our April luncheon presenter. Mr. Ryan spoke on the differences between county government, where he has served for the last fifteen years, and city government where he served six years as a city council member.
Mr. Ryan stated that you cannot have two greater contrasts in local government than what you have in the City of Houston and Harris County. The City of Houston has, by far, the strongest, strong mayor form of government in America, stated Ryan. He said that he asked the City Secretary, Anna Russell why that was. Ms. Russell showed him the books going back to the 1950’s to when Oscar Holcomb was mayor. At that time they had a city manager form of government and the city held a city charter election to go back to a mayoral form of government. In amending the city charter, all they did was replace the term city manager in the charter with the term city mayor. When the charter amendment passed, the mayor had all of the power of a city manager, but without the one check that a city manager has. With a city manager, the city council can fire the city manager if they do not think that person is doing a good job. With the strong mayor form of government, not only can the city council not fire the mayor, they cannot remove any of his department chiefs, although they must approve them when nominated for the position by the mayor. Interesting note; Oscar Holcomb was mayor of Houston eleven different times, never consecutively.
In comparison to the City, “County government is democracy 101” said Ryan. There are many county elected officials starting with the County Judge and the Commissioner’s Court and going down to all of the elected judges. All of whom are limited by law in what they can do. The City of Houston can pass an ordinance creating a new law as long as the state or the federal government has not already passed a law covering that topic. The Commissioner’s Court can only do what state law says that they can do. He also noted that in the case of the city, the City Attorney works only for the mayor, not city council. With the county, the County Attorney represents the people of the county, not just the County Judge or Commissioner’s Court.
Mr. Ryan was asked about what he thought of the Mayor’s statement that the City and the County needed to come together to work on the flooding issue, and how that would happen. Mr. Ryan said that it would take a lot of hard work and prayer to make that work. Part of the problem is determining where the City’s street drainage ends and the County’s flood control begins. There is no way you can build ahead of an extraordinary rain event, said Ryan. The best you can do is move the water as quickly as possible down to the bay. The problem of flooding is so massive, how are we going to catch up especially with the city facing serious financial debt problems. Ryan also noted that the County currently has a very robust flood control program with approximately $120 million annual budget that is made up of half local funds and half federal funds.