Bexar County Judge Peter Sakai is asking for a wide-reaching audit of county policies, including reviewing the county’s budget process and tracking the money it received from the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sakai took office at the beginning of the year, following the more than two-decade tenure of former Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. His decision to institute a “broad organizational review” of the county’s operations signals a willingness to part dramatically from previous practices in the interest of increasing transparency and modernizing county government.
“I’m hearing over and over again, from directors and managers to hourly employees … they want and need more direction, more consistency and clear processes to guide action,” Sakai said.
A plan to begin that process was approved unanimously by county commissioners Tuesday. It directs County Manager David Smith to oversee a review of each department and compile results into a written report.
“I’m looking for bi-weekly status report from the [county] manager’s office starting with the April 4 Commissioner’s Court meeting,” Sakai said. “This is intended to culminate with a final report on May 31 that we will review, provide feedback on and suggest strategies for improvement.”
Wolff created the county manager position in 2011, giving Smith — the only person ever to have held the job — broad authority to set county policy with the court’s oversight.
Smith’s autonomy came under criticism during the county’s last budget process, however, when Sheriff Javier Salazar and the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Bexar County accused Smith of ignoring their requests to fund positions that were frozen during the pandemic.
Commissioners added funding for additional sheriff’s deputies and some of the unfilled administrative positions amid backlash from community members, but the relationship with the deputies union was deeply damaged.
“We’re not going to have the county manager making a unilateral decision saying no deputies — that’s ridiculous,” then-candidate Sakai vowed during an October forum hosted by the union.
The Deputy Sheriffs Association of Bexar County praised Sakai’s plans to have elected officials more closely involved in the budget process.
“There has been a mismatch in the past years between what the county claims are its priorities when it comes to public safety and how it actually ends up allocating said resources,” the union said in a statement. “We’re excited to see the county leader and his staff personally involved in this very important process.”
Need for upgraded technology
Some of the issues Sakai wants to address stem from his own decades of work for Bexar County.
He told the San Antonio Report in January that the county’s technology on the whole hadn’t changed much in his time working there.
“I understand when either citizens, vendors, the customers of the county complain, ‘Why aren’t we getting paid on time?’ And I’ve explained, we still use … the same paper system that I did 30 years ago,” Sakai said in January.
Tuesday’s plan calls on the county manager to take steps to address that concern by adopting “technology to streamline and improve services in each department.”
The plan further asks Smith to focus on the county’s procurement process, which Sakai called “a hodgepodge of procedures now that needs overhauling and modernizing.”
Sakai’s organizational review also requests the addition of county work sessions — separate from the commissioners court’s regularly scheduled meetings — at which the public can view discussion of major policy initiatives. Commissioners Court currently meets twice per month with few other public discussions.
Commissioners sounded particularly enthusiastic about the addition of work sessions, as Tuesday’s meeting stretched well into the afternoon with lively discussions about mental health, law enforcement and the county’s state and federal legislative agendas.
“We have a lot of fresh ideas here on the court,” said Commissioner Grant Moody (Pct. 3), who joined the court in November. “… I think this will be a good opportunity for us to push some of those forward.”
“We haven’t used work sessions as much as commissioners courts of other large counties,” Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said. “I think that will be extremely healthy for the development of the direction that the staff may want, and the court certainly does want.”
A new court
Elected in 2014, Calvert is currently the longest-serving commissioner. Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) was appointed in 2019, and Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) was elected in 2020.
“To Judge Sakai’s point, this court has not formally approved any of the policies we are currently operating under,” Calvert said.
The organizational review calls for a review of the county’s meeting agenda coordination process to give more advance notice of the topics being discussed at upcoming meetings.
It also asks Smith to look into creating an onboarding process for newly elected commissioners and a succession plan for senior county staff.
“We’re having some turnover now with with some of the folks that have been department heads for some time,” said Rodriguez. “I think it’s probably timely that we have a discussion about how we interact not just with each other, but also with our constituents.”
Bexar County received $389 million in pandemic relief from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Though much of that money had already been allocated before Sakai took office, his review plan calls for the county manager to report to commissioners on the process used to track the expenditures.
“These federal funds support countless programs that have helped the county recover from COVID,” Sakai stated. “Have we maximized everything available and accounted for every dollar received?”
In recent commissioners court meetings, Sakai has repeatedly urged recipients of the federal funding to help the county measure the success of new programs paid for by the one-time funds.
“Obviously these are ARPA funds — that’s probably a once in a lifetime situation,” Sakai told commissioners court last month as it disbursed money for mental health services in public schools. “… How are we going to measure it in order to determine whether we need to sustain these programs, or modify these programs, or provide further feedback?”
Each school district that received funds was given the authority to use the money as it sees fit, though Sakai has asked the districts to come up with a more uniform approach if the county is to fund these efforts in the future.
This article has been updated to correctly state the length of time Commissioner Tommy Calvert has served on the Commissioners Court.