Hell to the Chief

At first glance, it would seem as though Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher was vindicated. After she questioned why the county was funneling millions of Homeland Security dollars into a flawed computer database, the state said the same exact thing last month in an audit of the county's emergency preparedness. (CliffsNotes version: It ain't good.) But such prescience is going unrewarded as the judge's refusal to relinquish control as the county's top Homeland Security official is exacerbating old tensions on the commissioners court, prompting one of her Republican colleagues to consider going over her head.

Commissioner Ken Mayfield, who like Keliher is up for re-election in November, says that if the county judge won't appoint someone else to fill her role, he'll appeal to Austin so his colleagues can force her hand.

"We may have to have the law changed so the commissioners court can make that decision," he says.

Like many of the disputes on the commissioners court, the stakes are high, even if the details seem petty. Currently, Robie Robinson serves as the coordinator of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, which makes him the No. 2 official on anything having to do with preparing for or responding to disasters. No. 1 is Keliher, who, by virtue of her office, serves as the director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, even though, unlike Robinson, she doesn't have the training or background in dealing with storms, fires, tornadoes, anthrax, whatever. Still, Keliher did ably lead the county's efforts at settling the Katrina evacuees last year, and that experience may have convinced her that she has the right stuff for the job.

In many counties in Texas, the judge appoints a separate director, and in Dallas, all three of Keliher's Republican colleague want her to appoint Robinson; however, they can't do a thing about it other than convince lawmakers in Austin to empower them to take the reigns from the judge.

Mayfield says that it's unusual for a county judge in Texas to serve as the top terrorism official, but it's not as maverick a concept as he thinks. In Houston's Harris County, considered both a prime terrorist target and a disaster-prone zone, County Judge Robert Eckels serves as the county's emergency management director, just like Keliher does here. The benefit of that is simple: In the event of a disaster, the top elected official in a sprawling, urban county such as Harris or Dallas will probably have an easier time giving local mayors and council members their marching orders than an anonymous bureaucrat. The downside of that arrangement is also clear: The top elected official may not have the precise training and expertise to respond to the countless threats in the age of inconvenient truths.

"If we had to evacuate the county and coordinate almost 30 cities in the county, there would have to be a professional in charge," says Commissioner Maurine Dickey of Robinson. "The truth is we need a professional in charge of this area, and that's why the county has hired him."

This latest dispute between Keliher and her Republican colleagues reflects an ongoing power struggle over the judge's authority. (The lone Democrat on the court, John Wiley Price, typically, but not always, aligns with her.) For Mayfield, Price and Commissioner Mike Cantrell, Keliher acts more like the chief executive of the county, when the actual constitutional authority of her position is largely identical to theirs. Keliher, however, leverages the symbolic authority of her position--she's the only one of them elected countywide--to take the lead on issues ranging from air pollution to jail health. For Keliher's critics, a separate director of Homeland Security gives them more of a say on how the county prepares and responds to disasters than they have now.

Of course, that might not be a good thing. For years, the anti-Keliher group has voted to spend Homeland Security dollars on the county's disastrous Adult Information Systems, which is supposed to track suspects and defendants as they wind their way through the criminal justice system. Keliher, however, has been critical of using money earmarked for disasters on a computer program that at best is only tangentially related to homeland security. Last month, the Governor's Division of Emergency Management essentially took Keliher's side when it concluded that the county's spending on AIS and JIS (a companion program) was "disproportional" and coming at the expense of "the ability of the county to provide adequate continuity to respond to a severe incident."

 
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