The Insider

Elective Surgery?
Members of Commissioners Court traditionally have regarded the county treasurer in the same terms in which one thinks of one's appendix -- that is, a small, worm-shaped tube whose only apparent function is to become a big pain when it acts up.

The treasurers, on the other hand, have touted their role as fiscal watchdogs over the otherwise largely independent finances of the commissioners' precincts, though they have rarely actually challenged court members on expenditures.

Some Harris County treasurers have been more disliked than others. While the combative Nikki Van Hightower frequently clashed with commissioners, her easygoing successor, Katy Caldwell, had an uneventful one term in the office. The current occupant, Republican Don Sumners, has aggravated commissioners so much in recent months that a move is on to seek abolition of his office in the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature.

The legislator who will play point man on the effort is none other than new state senator and former county judge Jon Lindsay, no great admirer of the institution of treasurer. Lindsay confirms that he will sponsor legislation calling for a constitutional amendment eliminating Sumners's position. Proposed amendments to the constitution have to be introduced in the House first, and state Representative Debra Danburg is expected to do the honors there.

Sumners raised the hackles of his county colleagues by opposing the downtown ballpark and Commissioners Court's controversial tax increase. He also helped conservative activist Bruce Hotze and others craft Proposition A, the tax-limitation initiative on Saturday's city ballot -- another move that earned him the enmity of commissioners, who oppose the proposition, as well as a verbal roasting from Prop A's number one critic, Mayor Bob Lanier. On top of all that, there's the $62,000 in penalties and interest incurred when the county was late in its payment of quarterly taxes to the Harris County Appraisal District, a snafu for which Sumners denied responsibility but still caught plenty of heat.

A discussion at last week's Commissioners Court session provided some indication that, at a minimum, Commissioners El Franco Lee, Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole wouldn't mind conducting an appendectomy on the treasurer's post if the Legislature provides the scalpel. It was Radack who swung the subject around to Sumners's job after Hotze appeared before commissioners to defend Proposition A.

"There have been a number of counties in Texas that have introduced constitutional amendments that were passed to eliminate the county treasurers' offices of their counties," Radack sweetly noted. "Do you think Harris County needs a county treasurer?"

When Hotze answered in the affirmative, Lee jumped in with the observation that the treasurer's office spends $320,000 a year and employs 11 people, but "the bank can do that job just as easily."

With Lanier kibitzing from the audience, Hotze declared, "It's nice to have a watchdog," though he allowed that Lanier probably on occasion wanted to get rid of George Greanias when the mayor's archnemesis was city controller. To which Lanier snapped: "We did." But Hotze archly pointed out that, in fact, it was the city's term limits strictures, rather than Lanier, that sent Greanias to the civic sidelines.

Following the meeting, Sumners further fueled the move against him by authoring a letter to Republican precinct chairmen sniping at Lanier, Radack, Councilwoman Helen Huey and Controller Lloyd Kelley for blindly opposing Prop A.

Contacted at his office, Sumners says he was unaware of Lindsay's plans to sponsor legislation to abolish his job, but he admitted he was not surprised. In fact, Sumners cornered County Judge Robert Eckels last week and asked him whether he supported such a move. Eckels told Sumners he wasn't one of the plotters.

Sumners attributes the sudden interest in getting rid of the treasurer to his stand on the commissioners' vote to raise taxes over Eckels's opposition. "They're still smarting over my criticism of their tax increase," he maintains. "As far as I can tell, there's only four people in Harris County who weren't upset about that."

The treasurer also has a warning for Republican elected officials who support his demise: "Making an attempt to do that is an invitation to rip the local Republican Party apart." Sumners contends that such an effort would pit grassroots GOP activists who get out to vote against "what I call the establishment Republicans who bring in the money."

No matter how many enemies Sumners may have in county government, abolition of his post is far from a legislative certainty. Any attempt to mandate a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment will encounter strong opposition from the Texas Treasurers Association. Fort Bend County Treasurer Kathy Hynson, the association's legislative co-chair, says the group's vigorous lobbying arm has prevented legislation to abolish any county treasurer's post from reaching the House floor since the late eighties.

Since Harris County is the largest county with a treasurer, Hynson says the group would fight hard to prevent the job's abolition, reasoning that as Harris County goes, so goes the state.

"The treasurer is the only elected office that handles all the money that's not controlled by commissioners," says Hynson. "My attitude is we're the only people answerable to the people as far as the finances of the county goes. If you remove that, you remove any say-so from the people who vote over who's going to watch over their money."

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