Newly sworn-in Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has released an ethics platform that seeks to end the pay-to-play environment surrounding Harris County politics. This comes shortly after she announced her “Talking Transition,” a public engagement campaign aimed at bridging the supposed gap between the public and county officials.
On Friday, Hidalgo announced an ethics policy begun on January 1 in which she is refusing campaign donations from “individuals or organizations that are seeking or doing business with Harris County.” On top of that, she said she will recuse herself from matters before the county where a personal conflict exists.
Hidalgo is the first official in the county or city to make a direct move against the current pay-to-play system.
“While contributions from folks who do business with the county are lawful,” she said in a statement, “I want to limit the risk of special influence and, more importantly, the appearance thereof.”
Bill King, who has announced his campaign to challenge Mayor Sylvester Turner again, has long advocated for banning contributions from special interests to city candidates. He applauded Hidalgo, saying she is off to “one heck of a start,” and reiterated the need for this reform in city government.
“I have previously written about this problem at the City of Houston. My analysis of one council member’s contributions showed that the vast majority were raised from people who either do business with the City or are regulated by it.” King said he has been researching additional city contributions and will release that information shortly.
Also applauding Hidalgo was Tony Buzbee, a prominent attorney and also a candidate for Houston mayor. In a tweet, he said, “I applaud this. This is what all government elected officials should do.” Buzbee said that he would take it further and “will lead a petition to make this the law of Houston.”
Additionally, Hidalgo said she will recuse herself from issues that come before the court in which she has a conflict of interest. Two examples she gave were pending lawsuits that will come before commissioners.
One lawsuit is Salcido, et al. v. Harris County, et al. Hidalgo says she has a “close, personal relationship” with David James, an attorney at a firm representing some of the plaintiffs in the case. The other suit is Smith v. Harris County. Hidalgo says she plans to recuse herself because she was a volunteer at the Texas Civil Rights Project during the time the lawsuit was developed and filed.
While mayoral hopefuls seem to be supportive of Hidalgo’s reforms and looking to implement some of their own, there haven’t been any announcements from Turner, county commissioners, council members, or council candidates saying they will do the same.
No matter the party affiliation, Hidalgo’s move is undoubtedly a boon for anyone who seeks transparency, accountability, and high ethical standards within county government. Taxpayers should be vigilant to make sure she sticks to her promises and push other elected officials and hopefuls to do the same.