Gabriel: Today is February 5th, it’s a Wednesday, and we are here with our county commissioner, Rodney Ellis from Precinct 1. Mr. Commissioner, how are you today?
Rodney: Good. Thank you for coming in. I’ve admired your work for many years. I remember you back when I was a staffer for Mickey Leland and I just appreciate your persistence and being such a successfu entrepreneur for so many years.
Gabriel: Thank you so much, Commissioner. How long have you been a commissioner?
Rodney: 3 years now. I was elected county commissioner 3 years ago and so I am obviously running for re-election. But it’s been an honor and a privilege of my life to come back home after 26 years in the Texas Senate, 6 years on the Houston City of Council, and I enjoyed my time as a city councilperson in Houston. I enjoyed my 26 years in Austin in the State
Senate. It’s good to be back home.
Gabriel: Wonderful. Can you please explain to be the day-today operations and responsibilities of a commissioner?
Rodney: Well, a commissioner is 1 of 5 people on the governing board of Harris County. Harris County is a massive government entity. Precinct 1 has about 1.1 million residents. I have a sizable Hispanic population. 39% of the residents are Hispanic. This county has over 4 million residents. 43% of them are Hispanic, according to the American Community Survey. Many Harris County residents are immigrants from Latin American countries, and Precinct 1 is certainly no exception.
We include among countries of origin: immigrants from Mexico, about 600,000, El Salvador – this is countywide – about 106,000, Honduras, 70,000, and it’s a very massive entity.
The duties of a commissioner, 4 of us along with the county judge, we have broad policy-making authority over county government. We conduct the county’s general business. That includes counting the county’s budget, setting the tax rate, hiring department heads, supervising construction of county infrastructure, writing contracts, and appointing members to various boards and commissioners. Each commissioner is responsible for building and maintaining county transportation networks. That means bridges and parks within that precinct.
And Precinct 1, we provide educational and social and recreational activities for seniors at 9 of our community centers. And for our youth, at 3 of our centers. We also have some innovative programs, such as a non-profit Harris County street Olympics.
A year-round program that addresses youth and social service, healthcare, educational, and vocational needs. We have aquatics programs where we provide free learn-to-swim lessons. And we also do competitive swimming.
We have an environmental education program that uses live animals and hands-on techniques to teach children about natural science and how to protect the environment. We put together an arts program and we are trying to expand it. You’re going to see some activities where you’ll see murals throughout the Precinct and the
Hispanic community and other otherwise ethnic communities. We have a very aggressive cycling program. We have someone who’s a professional cyclist in Mexico. Fernando Martinez. And we have bought a fleet of bikes, some used by Texas. We have some electric bikes and 3-wheel bikes. Don’t call them trikes, 3-wheel bikes.
We’re putting a massive amount of money on city streets and pedestrian and biking trails on city trails to connect bayous of county property. There was a commitment made that we have 150 new miles of protected linear parks along our bayous. We’re going to put some money in that will be on the commissioner’s court in this next meeting, probably, to complete the bayous that were left behind. Most of what we do, we do where the equity lives. We try to pick areas in the city where we are going to help with infrastructure and streets where it makes sense, where large numbers of people would benefit, like the University of Houston main campus, and Texas Southern.
We’re spending $33 million+ to redo the streets in those areas to make them much more pedestrian friendly, bike friendly, and also do landscaping. Our budget for Precinct 1 is about $320 million. And here’s how we spend it: $89 million in general fund budget. We spend it on road and bridge operations, park operations, and administration and youth programs. I’ll give you some of this in writing. About $199 million in bond funds for roads, trails, sidewalks, capital projects, $37 million in bonds funds for parks, including buildings and capital projects.
And about $1 million for donations and revenue. And one of the things that I’m real proud of that we did: the county has some responsibility over flooding issues.
We maintain the bayous. We do drainage in unincorporated areas. The city does drainage inside the city limits off the streets, but we handle it once it gets to the water. We have to work hand in-hand with the county. After Harvey, this office advocated for a large-enough bond package with local money so we could hit a lot of those low-income Hispanic neighborhoods and African-American neighborhoods that have been neglected for decades.
There was a flood when Harvey rained, but they would flood when there was a shower. Greens and holes bayous in particular are two that impacts a lot of Hispanic areas that have been overlooked for a very long time because the federal money comes in from the corp engineers, and they will do a cost-benefit ratio analysis now.
That means your property must cost enough to qualify. So we took that out. We advocated for equity language on the ballot. When we did that $2.5 million bond package, and then when the new court came in – so appreciative to Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia – because with this new court, we could divide equity along the lines of something that helps people who have been devastated every time we took into account how many people have cars in their neighborhoods, and have cars who can’t get out. You take into account on how many times they’ve flooded. You don’t just go look at the value of the home. And I think that’s going to lead to a lot more fairness in how we leverage our bond funds and spend our local money to draw down federal money.
Gabriel: Wonderful. You practically answered all of my questions.
Rodney: I got a couple more. I want to talk to you about the work you did. You played a key role in helping us to advocate for the county to have a program that targeted to help minority immigrant women on businesses.
So there are Hispanic businesses and other minority groups who were left out of the economic pie of $5 billion a year that the county controls. The county had no records on what percentage of the overall spending was going to minority businesses. With you help and others, we advocated that the county would do a disparage study so you’d collect the data and then, once you collect it and you see where there are disparities, you can design a program that won’t be challenged in court. So we could try to do a better job of giving minority women on businesses who are qualified a piece of the pie. We created a new department of economic opportunity, which would focus on equity as well. What’s fair about what we should do? Should we put in workers’ protection if someone was going to do business with the county? Should we have a requirement that they do some job training?
Should we require them to have some version of a second chance program? Should we require them to pay a minimum wage, a livable wage, $15 an hour, to their workers? Should we have apprenticeship programs? Should we have mentorship programs? We can benefit from what the city is doing because the city of Houston has done this for years. The state of Texas did a disparity study.
Advocating for that back when I was in the Senate. That’s a program there. Started on the Anne Richards – Governor Bush cabinet in place. We have a lot of minority women in business who are making a good living because they got a chance to go in and compete on a level playing field with people who have been advantageous for years. So we created a new department, which will focus on implementing that program. We got to design our version of minority women’s business enterprise program and benefit from their mistakes. The city, the state, other cities and countries, had a pass because we didn’t have one. We focus a lot on a responsible criminal justice reform package. Nobody ought to be in jail because they’re poor. This notion of, you can’t post bail if you get stuck in jail. If you have money, you can get out.
Gabriel:: Yeah, you can get deported.
Rodney: Yeah. We reformed that on the misdemeanor basis. We still can’t get around ICE and the deportation issue; I’ll be honest about that. But there are so many people for minor offenses like misdemeanor charges, like driving without a driver’s license. Or you got a very small amount of marijuana that, unfortunately, a lot of our college kids just do. It’s stuff you and I did, but we got away with it.
Gabriel: Some people get away with it, some people got caught.
Rodney: So we’ve reformed that system. We’ve expanded a public renters office. I fought to get Harris County to create a public renters office back when I was in the Senate. It was like pulling teeth to get them to do it. And then when I got it, it was only 8 or 10 percent of the cases. So we doubled the size of that office. I want to get it even larger. We want to break away from judges picking the lawyers for poor people who walk in their courts. That’s just not fair.
Gabriel: Give them a second chance.
Rodney: Yeah, give them a second chance. I know I jumped on a lot of issues, but I want you to know that I’ve got a long history of fighting for immigrant rights.
I passed a resolution, which was approved for the county to promote local immigrants rights hotline to residents. We’ve also, as a formal binding, condemned the terrible hate-motivated massacre in El Paso that targeted Hispanic customers at a Wal-Mart. I was there a couple of weeks ago. I was adamantly opposed to the show your-papers bill when it was in the legislature and went on record when the old court tried to get a resolution passed opposing it. I believe I didn’t get a second on that. But you know, this court has made a big difference. We’ve gone from being one of the most regressive counties in the country. Under Lina Hidalgo’s leadership Gabriel: Yes, she’s done really well, yes. You guys are doing wonderful. You guys are a good team now.
Rodney: We make a great team. Look, my relationship with the Hispanic community goes back to when I was chief of staff to Mickey Leland. He and Ben Reyes are close allies.
Gabriel: I remember Ben.
Rodney: When I went on City Council –
Gabriel: Leonel Castillo, Gracie Saenz, all those guys, yes. I was a little bit younger, but I do remember that. Well thank you, Mr. Commissioner.