COMMENTARY: Setting priorities

BY RICHARD F. CORTEZ | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR

With my first seven months serving as your Hidalgo County Judge behind me, I am ready to proceed with the priorities that I have established. The priorities were developed after reviewing how our county government functions; identifying the areas that require improvement as well as those that are functioning well; and laying out the groundwork that will set the tone and tempo for my administration.

Some of you reading this column are people to whom I have reached out for your expertise and council or to learn more about the good work being done by your institution, business or organization. I have met with groups and individuals from city, county, state and federal government; from educational institutions; from our religious community; from community organizations; from government and social programs; and from our business community.

All of that research and the conversations we have shared has led me to identify the four priorities that will govern the work we do during the next 3½ years and, hopefully, beyond.

My four priorities are:

1. Earn the public trust.

2. Provide solutions to lower our poverty rate.

3. Ensure effective and efficient delivery of services.

4. Attract investment to Hidalgo County.

I will focus on the first priority in this column and the others in future columns. However, rest assured that each is equally important and all four are designed to work with each other to achieve measurable results.

Why am I focusing on earning public trust? In a society increasingly skeptical of government and its elected officials, trust is everything.

Hidalgo County has an image problem. I will not elaborate on how we got that reputation; however, whether it’s for self-enrichment or to help the “compadre,” there is never an excuse for not doing what is in the public’s best interest. When an elected official or person in a position of trust is accused, arrested or convicted of corruption, it taints all of us and creates a perception of impropriety that can hinder progress.

I believe the honest and hardworking elected officials and public servants far outnumber the bad, but perception is everything, and we cannot tackle a problem without first acknowledging it. It is important in my administration that we win your trust. In order for us to do that, I know we will be judged by our actions, and that is as it should be.

Transparency is key, so my administration will promote open meetings, including providing live-streaming of public meetings so those who cannot attend in person may do so from the privacy of their offices or comfort of their homes.

Earning your trust will also require us to scrutinize our actions and ensure the efficient and effective use of resources. In that regard, I have asked questions during Commissioners Court and in workshops to get to the core of issues, such as what is the best and most efficient use of our funds when determining energy providers, which is about a $2 million annual expense. I believe that this next budget cycle will see the county pooling with other public entities to ensure the best price and, after doing our research, we will promote that course of action. My administration will use the same criteria for reviewing other county contracts, to ensure we are making the best and most effective use of our resources.

I am also looking closely at how we allocate funds to county offices and departments. The majority of county revenue comes from property taxes and my administration takes seriously our fiscal responsibility to our taxpayers, so I will work to ensure that the money with which we are entrusted is used to maximize the services and resources we are charged with overseeing.

The priorities and actions we take show our communities and the world who we are:

>> How we care for our yards, streets, and parks.

>> How we treat our veterans.

>> How we treat our mentally ill.

>> How we treat animals.

>> How we treat people in need.

>> How we treat our elderly.

>> How we treat children and families.

>> How we treat business, industry and investments.

The actions we take in those areas reflect what is important to us and who we are as a community. I believe we are a community that cares for one another, that cares for our environment, that cares for our stray animals, and that works together for the common good, and I know we are business-friendly. Demonstrating those core values will go a long way toward improving our image and attracting investment.

It is important to me to win your trust, and I hope that we will in time; after all, we are your public servants. In reflecting on this issue, I was reminded of a line from a prayer on governance that went something like this: “Being a public servant means prioritizing the welfare of common citizens over their own welfare.” It resonated with me because, as public servants, we must all put the greater good above our own self-interests. Doing so will go a long way in earning the public trust.

You may not agree with my priorities or with some of the things I’ve outlined here, but my hope is that you will consider these and other proposals and invest yourself in helping our county prosper in whatever way you can. I am always open for suggestions, for solutions, and for volunteers. This is our community. Working together, we will make a difference. My next column will address the need to reduce the level of poverty and why that is important.

Richard F. Cortez is Hidalgo County judge.