Changing of the Guard

Sam Biscoe

Retiring Country Judge,
Bill Aleshire

Hank Davis Gonzalez

It's the end of an era," County Attorney Ken Oden declared on the phone the other day. The twang in his voice carried a tinge of sadness as he pondered the future of county government without Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire -- his old friend and sometime sparring partner -- who leaves office in December after a colorful 12-year reign. "Look at his combative style," Oden continued. "That alone will be a dramatic change."

Oden was, of course, comparing the personality traits of two polar opposites -- Aleshire, who engages in battle for blood sport, and his likely successor, Sam Biscoe, who leans toward the consensus-building school of thought. Biscoe, a Democrat who relinquished his Pct. 1 Commissioners Court seat last year to run for county judge, is the widely held favorite to win the Nov. 3 election against Republican Hank Davis Gonzalez. So for all practical purposes, when local powerbrokers and elected officials talk about Travis County's future, they speak as if Biscoe (with Aleshire's blessing) is already steering us -- all 683,000 of us -- into the next century.

Ah, the future. Or eek, depending on your point of view. There are some pretty heady issues on the table right now, and no one is promising an easy go of it. So it makes sense, given the set of challenges, that Biscoe the problem solver, and not Aleshire the warrior, will be at the controls come Jan. 1, 1999. Even Aleshire says as much. "Bill Aleshire is not a nice guy who fights when he doesn't have to," the county judge observed. "Sam Biscoe is a nice guy who fights when he needs to." With that in mind, let's take a look at some hot-button issues ahead:

* Commissioners Court: First things first. With the four commissioners' seats and the county judge's post being contested this election cycle, the political makeup of the new court is not altogether certain. Chances are reasonably strong, however, that a Democratic sweep will produce a new Commissioners Court that pretty much resembles the old Commissioners Court. That scenario would put Biscoe at the helm with newcomers Ron Davis and Nan Clayton in Pcts. 1 and 3 respectively, and incumbents Karen Sonleitner and Margaret Gómez winning re-election in Pcts. 2 and 4. But then, we're reminded that this county is also home to a growing number of Republicans, particularly in Pcts. 2 and 3 where Sonleitner and Clayton are running close races against GOP contenders. Should we witness an election upset, we could see Jim Shaw (Pct. 2) and/or Todd Baxter (Pct. 3) make Travis County history as the first GOP commissioners. This whole Republican reality business is unsettling to old-guard Dems like District Attorney Ronnie Earle, because he, like a lot of other people, believe the new breed coming up the ranks has a serious axe to grind. "There was a time when people were interested in good government and not in advancing the interests of their own party," Earle said. "Reward your friends and punish your enemies -- that's what comes with extreme partisanship."

* Growth and growth management: Like it or not, Travis County's rural outback is fast becoming an urban frontier. As such, county leaders will likely ask the Texas Legislature for regulatory authority on planning issues, which go beyond road and transportation matters. More growth-management power would allow the Commissioners Court to implement zoning laws and establish permitting fees on construction projects outside city jurisdictions, thus creating a new revenue source for the county. Additionally, Biscoe says he wants to explore ways to introduce the so-called Smart Growth agenda into the county plan. But that in itself won't be easy. "When you're talking about Smart Growth and the county, you're not just talking about the Commissioners Court and the city of Austin. You're talking about working with all of the other jurisdictions and getting them to back you up on this," he said.

In the time being, Mayor Kirk Watson hopes the county will support the city's effort to protect the watershed areas of southwestern Travis County and shepherd development projects to the desired east and northeast development zones. "The city is looking for ways to bring people into these areas and the county can play a role in helping us," Watson said. "Eastern Travis County is ripe for growth and progress." The county's growth issue, adds Watson, "could be the real legacy of the next Commissioners Court as it figures out how to manage a very urban county going into the next century."

* Health and Human Services: Biscoe is well-versed in this area and will likely do a good job overseeing the divorce of the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department. It wasn't a very good -- or long -- marriage anyway, as the city and county have disagreed on the department's management since its inception in 1995. The plan on the table now calls for the county reassuming total control of its human services and splitting the jointly operated city-county health clinics. Commissioners are waiting on a final contract offer from Seton Healthcare to run the county's five clinics, while Austin decides how it intends to operate its eight remaining clinics.

* Consolidation: While the city and county are going their separate ways on healthcare, there is talk of consolidation on other fronts. This is where local leaders are looking for Biscoe's collaborative style to come into play. Under Biscoe's leadership on one end, and Watson's leadership on the other, city-county relations are expected to take the historically less-traveled path of conciliation. But then we have to remember that, along with consolidation comes the age-old turf battle discussions over who should control what government service. On a positive note, the city and county were able to negotiate a deal (after a fashion) that gives the county control over the Emergency Medical Services department. The next four years are likely to put Biscoe's implementation skills to the test as he oversees EMS' transition toward county control and management. On issues of public safety, it's no secret Sheriff Margo Frasier would like to expand her authority beyond her current sheriff's department purview, and she'll need the support of county commissioners to do that. "I think we'll start to see members of the court become more vocal on taking the lead on certain issues," Frasier said. The county currently is exploring its takeover of the 911 system now under city control. Consolidating municipal police departments under the sheriff's office may be propossed in the very distant future. Austin Police Association leaders have privately voiced opposition to that idea, and it's not likely Austin officials will turn loose of the city's police department. "I like [Austin Police Chief] Stan Knee and I admire him professionally," Frasier said. "But does it make sense to have all of these different agencies in one county?" It's uncertain how city cops in the likes of Lago Vista or Manor would respond to the merger proposition and, while this fairly young issue bears watching closely, any major police consolidation is not likely to happen anytime soon.

* Racial issues: Say what you will about Aleshire, but he's done a good job of recruiting and promoting minorities and women in county government. A walk through the county offices at the Stokes Building and the courthouse will bear out Aleshire's diversity claim. Along those same lines, should Biscoe win the county judge seat, he'll be the first black to hold that office. It should be noted, however, that race has all but gone unnoticed in this particular campaign -- a fact that Aleshire finds heartening. But he's also quick to pronounce racism, or at least its undercurrents, is still a serious matter of concern throughout the county. Bigotry, he said, should be treated as seriously as other county issues -- growth management, for example. "When the chamber of commerce people take their poll of the No. 1 issues facing the county, most people put transportation or the economy at the top of the list," he said. "But I always say bigotry." Biscoe's high-profile position in county government may help bridge the racial chasm in that regard. "I believe he is exactly the right person to do double duty," said Aleshire, "to be a positive role model for black people in the community while demonstrating that, in a lot of ways, race really is -- or should be -- irrelevant in leadership roles."

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