Sylvia Garcia has been a county commissioner only three months, but she's already finding the position has a lot more muscle than her previous post as Houston city controller. Commissioners Court has long been a hardball venue for the good 'ol boys, but the rookie is showing it's a game the ladies can play with gusto, too.
Four years ago, Garcia tried and failed to convince City Council it didn't need to follow Mayor Lee Brown's recommendation to hire Coastal Securities as a city financial adviser.
After that, the controller and the firm's officials repeatedly clashed. Garcia accused Coastal of providing inaccurate financial data, playing politics with councilmembers and misrepresenting her positions. Since the controller had no vote on council, all she could do was write protest memos and lobby councilmembers.
Whereas city controllers can usually only get mad, county commissioners can get even in spades. Last week, Garcia turned the tables on her old adversary, orchestrating a surprise move to replace Coastal as county financial co-adviser over the opposition of County Judge Robert Eckels. Neither Coastal officials nor Eckels responded to Insider calls for comment.
"No question that she wanted 'em off, and she got 'em off," says Commissioner Steve Radack admiringly, himself no stranger to power plays on the court. "It's my understanding she had a problem with Coastal at the city, and when she had an opportunity to take 'em off county government, she took it."
Voting with Garcia were colleagues El Franco Lee, Jerry Eversole and Radack. Eckels, a friend of Coastal partner Stuart Ford, repeatedly tried to get Coastal's contract extended. Over his objections, the commissioners assigned First Southwest sole financial adviser duties. It had shared that role with Coastal at the city and enjoyed a good relationship with Garcia.
Radack had sided with Garcia opponent Johnny Isbell in her contest for the Precinct 2 seat last November, and missed few opportunities to take potshots at her as a city carpetbagger trying to seize a plum county post. That animosity led some political observers to figure that the victorious Garcia would ally herself with Eckels, who has been Radack's favorite punching bag on the court. Whereas Radack snubbed Garcia's invitation to her swearing-in ceremony, the judge went out of his way to woo the new commissioner.
Judging by recent developments, Eckels's attempts to cozy up to Garcia haven't paid off, and the first elected female commissioner and the hulking alpha male Radack have taken on a relationship with the overtones of a rough-edged Tracy-Hepburn political infatuation.
At her maiden commissioners meeting, Garcia wound up with an elbow-to-elbow seating assignment with Radack. After he seconded her criticism of the county's medical examiner, Garcia quipped, "Next thing you know we'll be holding hands." At the time, big Steve gruffly responded, "That'll never happen." Nowadays, Radack is singing a different tune.
"I, I, I think she's great," stammered the commissioner when asked for an update. "She's very forthright, certainly is eager to serve her constituents and the people of Harris County very well. And frankly, I've been very impressed by her."
"I don't know if it's a romance," joked Garcia. "He didn't send me a valentine." On a more serious note, she says, "I just think Commissioner Radack has discovered we agree more than we disagree. In the last three months, that has certainly been the case."
A veteran observer says it comes as no surprise that Garcia is finding more common ground with her fellow commissioners than with Eckels.
"The commissioners are the ones with the authority and the power, and the county judge's job is largely ceremonial. And Eckels doesn't exercise power the way former judge Jon Lindsay did."
Unlike the city, where the mayor controls budgets and projects, the county judge has little leverage with the four commissioners.
"We're all individuals with our own precincts and capital improvement plans and our own bond money to spend," explains Garcia. "We don't have to feel the threat that we're going to lose a project if you don't vote for me. We have complete autonomy, and that's not true of City Council."
The effort to oust Coastal illustrates how the county balance of power favors the individual commissioners. When the contract renewal came up, Garcia put a hold on it. According to the customary commissioners' rules, that effectively ices an item until the commissioner who placed the hold removes it.
Initially, Garcia says, she wanted to talk with Coastal officials about her problems with the firm. For the next meeting, Judge Eckels ignored etiquette and put the contract back on the agenda.
Garcia then explained her issues with Coastal to her colleagues and told them why having two financial advisers was a bad idea.
"In today's economy, you need one person to put their arms around the whole finances of the county to get a clear picture of where we're going and be able to respond to the changing markets," argued Garcia. "That was my view at the city, and it's still my view."
She was reassured by Commissioner Lee, who told her not to worry because he would put a hold on Coastal's contract. After he did, Eckels again violated court courtesy. When the contract popped back up on the agenda, Radack weighed in with "We can't have that." When Eckels learned he didn't have the votes to pass the contract, he pulled it off the table.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Since Coastal's agreement had expired, Garcia figured the matter was settled. But she found out that Coastal was still handling county financial work. Other commissioners pledged their votes for whatever action she wanted to take. At the next meeting, Garcia amended the First Southwest contract to take over Coastal's role, leaving Eckels almost speechless.
In a later executive session, Garcia says, a peeved Eckels complained to her that he hadn't been consulted and Coastal deserved a courtesy call in advance of the vote.
Garcia says she just smiled and told the judge, "If they're going around bad-mouthing me all over town, I don't need to give 'em a heads-up."
Left unsaid was the fact that on a court where commissioners wield the power, she didn't need to give Eckels a heads-up, either.