County Judge Sam Biscoe 'decentralizes' Pct. 5's Bruce Elfant
The routine business of a county constable's office can be as dull as cobwebs.
But in Travis County, we can happily rely on an occasional political stink to raise the visibility -- however fleetingly -- of the most ignored and least understood job in county government. "I've wanted to be a lot of things," County Judge Sam Biscoe mused one day last summer, "but never a constable." Biscoe made the comment in jest, given some of the unpleasant tasks that go with the territory: serving protective orders against spouse abusers, delivering delinquent child support notices to deadbeat parents, slapping civil lawsuits on unsuspecting defendants. All thankless jobs, to be sure. But the matter that Biscoe brought up for discussion at Commissioners Court on that steamy August day -- to redistribute the workload among the five constables -- had, by that time, moved well beyond humor.
Biscoe's proposal seemed reasonable enough, yet some believe his agenda carried a highly personal subtext, aimed directly at fellow Democrat Bruce Elfant, the most politically powerful of the five elected constables. Indeed, Biscoe appeared noticeably -- perhaps unnecessarily -- rough on Elfant in at least one of the several Commissioners Court meetings on decentralization, proposed by Biscoe during last summer's budget process. A series of tense meetings followed until Elfant, thoroughly demoralized, began sending his chief deputy in his stead. In the end, following some compromises, Biscoe won the battle. On Jan. 15, the Commissioners Court narrowly approved the redistribution plan, which is expected to be fully implemented in 60 days.
Elfant's elevated status (perceived or real) stems at least in part from the central location of the Pct. 5 office, in the County Courthouse. Elfant acts as the de facto exclusive process server for the Travis County judges, and by default for many lawyers who do business at the courthouse. This means Elfant's deputies not only serve legal papers in his Pct. 5, which spans miles across the Central City, but they also serve about two-thirds of the papers in other precincts (see map and chart). Given the territorial nature of law enforcement, not all the constables cared for this arrangement, and by early spring at least two had begun advocating a "decentralized" system that would allow them -- not Elfant -- to serve their respective areas.
Another sore point was the fact that Elfant's office receives the largest share of the constables' budget ($2.5 million of about $5 million) and has the largest staff, with the most technologically advanced computer system. Under the new plan, however, Elfant will lose four deputies to the other precincts, along with $230,158 from his annual budget.
By most accounts, Elfant -- who also lays claim to being the only Jewish constable in Texas -- wins high marks from the judges, lawyers, and domestic violence and child advocacy workers who deal with his office. (These kinds of relationships can naturally translate into campaign dollars at election time, while other constables might not be as fortunate.) During his tenure, Elfant has received two state association awards -- Texas Constable of the Year and Administrator of the Year -- and he's second in line to be president of the Justice of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas. Aside from his constable work, Elfant may be more familiar to the general public for his unyielding opposition to the state's concealed weapons laws.
Biscoe's proposal to shake things up in the Pct. 5 office posed a threat not only to Elfant, but also to the judges and lawyers who have depended on the Pct. 5 constable to get their papers delivered. They sent letters and e-mails to Biscoe and the county commissioners (Biscoe likened the campaign to a "political air raid" instigated by Elfant), and they appeared in Commissioners Court to endorse the current centralized system. Probate Judge Guy Herman even submitted a brief that cited state attorney general opinions that county commissioners don't have authority to alter a system that affects the judicial operations of the courts. "The current system is working quite well," Herman told the Chronicle. "And if it's working quite well, why change it?"
Earlier this month, the constable conflict finally reached a half-hearted resolution, with County Commissioners voting 3-2 (Karen Sonleitner and Ron Davis dissented) to begin matchmaking four of his two dozen civil deputies to the other precincts. Additionally, Elfant's office will no longer be the primary process server for the courts, with the exception of those "hot" papers (such as in domestic violence incidents) that require immediate attention. From Elfant's standpoint, it could have been worse: One option called for moving two officers and a clerk to each of the other four precincts, and lopping $584,396 from the Pct. 5 annual budget.
In response to the court's decision, Probate Judge Herman and Justice of the Peace Herb Evans have signed orders directing all of their writs and other papers to continue to be handled by Elfant's office. Herman's order even reiterated that his court -- "not another governmental entity" -- selects the officer he wants to serve his writs and other papers. While other judges have privately expressed their wariness of the new system, this is not a battle they want to get into with the county judge -- a fellow Democrat who also holds the county's purse strings.
Attorneys are equally apprehensive of the new arrangements, but there's little they can do. One compromise in the plan allows for attorneys to request a specific constable to serve their papers. But, says attorney Hamilton Rial, "You have to ask for it every time you file, and attorneys have to know they need to ask for it." Rial, who spoke to the commissioners last August in behalf of the Travis County Bar Association, views the decentralized system as a potential headache for attorneys. "It's just a hassle," he says. "If you file a lawsuit and you have five different defendants in different precincts, you have to cut a different check for each precinct." Under the current system, he says, "You cut a single check to one precinct [typically Pct. 5] and that incorporates the filing fee and the process fee."
Under the new plan, two constables, Drew McAngus and Bob Vann, both Republicans, got what they wanted -- an additional deputy, more money, and the chance to serve more writs and other civil papers in their precincts. The other constables, Luke Mercer and Maria Canchola, backed Elfant in this battle, and they say they were satisfied with the current system even though they too will get greater resources under decentralization. Elfant says he doesn't expect the workload in his office to change, in light of the new redistricting plan that expanded his precinct from 90,000 population to 140,000. Losing four staff members, however, may affect efficiency. "What this means is that we'll be doing the same amount of work with fewer people to perform the work," Elfant said.
Assault on the 'Empire'
The new system may be a done deal, but there are judges and lawyers who still can't fathom why Biscoe didn't solicit their opinions before setting the decentralization idea into motion. After all, they were the ones who fought for a centralized plan more than 20 years ago because, as one put it, "We were tearing our hair out under the old system" -- the "old" system that is now the "new" system. Some county insiders speculate that there were additional motives behind Biscoe's proposal to whittle Elfant's staff and budget: specifically, that bad blood existed between the two Democrats, stemming from Elfant's support last year of two constable candidates who defeated Biscoe's preferred candidates. Others theorize that Elfant supported Biscoe's opponent, Valarie Bristol, in the county judge's race of 1998, but Biscoe scoffs at the notion that he would hold such grudges: "People can support whoever they want to -- that's their business." Elfant says that in fact, while he thought both Bristol and Biscoe did a good job as commissioners, he stayed out of the race, and even voted for Biscoe.
Then there's the notion -- shared by at least five independent sources -- that it's Biscoe's fiercely loyal aide, Dan Smith (known for his long political memory), who has it in for Elfant because he supported Pct. 1 Constable Mercer in his 2000 re-election bid, while Smith supported Flynn Lee, now a private process server. Smith was out of town on a family matter and unavailable for comment, but Biscoe responded: "Like most assistants at the county, Dan talks too much. He probably talked about this to a lot of people, but I assure you, this was my idea."
Biscoe says his reasons are in fact quite straightforward. Elfant, Biscoe said, "has built himself an empire that the Commissioners Court didn't know about." This alleged fiefdom was created, Biscoe believes, because departmental budgets are routinely "rolled" into the next year's budget. "If your budget was $400,000 one year, you start at that amount and you work your way up. All the departments are too inclined to start [each budget process] with their current budgets." The amount of annual increase depends on how well a department head is able to justify the need. Elfant, for his part, denies the "empire-building" allegation. "Any empire that was built, was built before I got here," he says, adding that other than replacing worn equipment and filling staff vacancies, his office has not added any new equipment or expanded its employee roster or fleet of vehicles in about four years.
In any case, Biscoe said he decided to take a closer look at the constables' offices, and drew his conclusions on what course he should pursue based on the findings of a study by the county's Planning and Budget Office (PBO). He says he also consulted with his predecessor, former County Judge Bill Aleshire, and Commissioner Margaret Gomez, herself a former constable, who backed the judge on the new plan.
Biscoe says he approached his mission from a fiscal perspective, starting with the question of whether the county should cede its civil process-serving work to the competitive private sector. He backed off of that, in deference to the predictable responses to privatizing a function of county government, and because after studying the matter further he concluded that "we were doing as good a job as the private process servers."
What bothered Biscoe, though, was what he deemed a budget and staffing disparity between the five constable offices. He learned, for example, that Elfant, unlike the other constables, had a $6,000 advertising budget that allowed him to compete with private process servers (Biscoe has since redistributed those dollars among all five constables). "Now to be honest," Biscoe says, "I don't know if I'm bothered by us losing business to the [private processors], because we're losing $1 million to operate." To get that number, Biscoe points to the PBO study showing that the civil end of all five constable offices cost the county an average of $2.75 million between 1997 and 2000, while the revenue only amounted to $1.8 million. While Biscoe views the difference as a $1 million deficit, others argue that government isn't in the business of making money. "That's not our function," said one source. "County governments are supposed to serve the people. Should we stop providing public transportation because that doesn't make money?"
The new distribution of workload may serve to keep Elfant's deputies out of other constables' precincts, but only time will tell whether the new plan will eventually work itself out, with this controversy to be replaced by another. Commissioners Court will take another look at the new system in six months, to review how the plan is working. Biscoe hopes things will be running smoothly by then.
Serving the Process
Commissioner Gomez, who voted with Biscoe and newly appointed Margaret Moore to approve the plan, believes it was the right thing to do. "I think it's a good-government issue, and I think it can work," she said. Recalling her own days as a Pct. 4 constable in South Austin, Gomez says she herself preferred handling the civil papers that applied to her precinct in order to hold herself accountable to her constituents. If she spotted a Pct. 5 deputy serving papers in her turf, she says, she would simply call the downtown constable's office and communicate -- nicely -- her desire to serve papers in her own precinct. "I do think there needs to be more communication among the constables. I think a lot of their differences could be solved by talking it out," she said. "I'm just really sorry this issue got to be so emotional."
A few days before the commissioners voted to whittle Elfant's resources, some 50 local Dems gathered in the home of Dawn and Fred Lewis as a show of appreciation for Elfant and to shore up his sagging spirit. Sonleitner, who has supported Elfant at every turn, was the only commissioner to attend the party. Elfant, his friends say, is a consummate public servant who loves his work and strives to stay ahead of the curve in his profession. "I do hope we can put this behind us and get back to doing what we do," Elfant says. "I'm really proud of the work this office does, but we've been distracted by this for the last few months."
Biscoe believes that given time, the new system will be an improvement. "I must confess that I'm the one who started this, and it blew way out of proportion," he said. "My perspective was government efficiency. I hope I didn't lose sight of that."