The Houston Oral History Project is a repository for the stories, accounts, and memories of those who have chosen to share their experiences. The viewpoints expressed in the Houston Oral History Project do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the City of Houston, the Houston Public Library or any of its officers, agents, employees, or volunteers. The City of Houston and the Houston Public Library make no warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the interviews and expressly disclaim any liability therefore.
The Houston Oral History Project provides unedited versions of all interviews. Some parents may find material objectionable for minors. Parents are encouraged to interact with their children as they use the Houston Oral History Project Web site to complete research and homework activities.
The Houston Public Library retains the literary and publishing rights of its oral histories. No part of the interviews or transcripts may be published without the written permission of the Houston Oral History Project.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to:
The Houston Oral History Project.
Houston Public Library
Houston, Texas 77002
The Houston Oral History Project reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to decline to post any account received herein and specifically disclaims any liability for the failure to post an account or for errors or omissions that may occur in posting accounts to the Virtual Archive.
For more information email the Houston Oral History Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interview with: Bob Eckels
Interviewed by: Louis J. Marchiafava
Date: June 3, 1975
Archive Number: OH 046
LM: 00:06 June 3, 1975, interview with Commissioner Bob Eckels. First, I want to thank you, Commissioner Eckels, for taking time out from your busy schedule for this interview. It is appreciated. I’d like to start by finding out how you became involved in public service.
BE: It goes way back to the days when I was teaching school and I became involved in the political aspect of the teacher organizations, involved in the Congress of Houston Teachers as a teacher and as an officer in that organization. I left the teaching profession but had many friends as teachers, having spent some ten years as a teacher. There was a vacancy on the board, and my teacher friends accosted me, if you will, and requested that I run. I didn’t have any idea that I would win, but I achieved my company’s approval—at that time I was an employee—and with their help went after the first school board race in 1960. As you know, I was selected to serve on the slate, if you will, and the slate won hands down over the opponents. There were four or five people in that first race, and it was on a strict plurality basis at that time. We did manage to wind up with the majority and with more than 50%, in fact, for that race.
LM: Did you assume your duties on the school board with any clear notion of what objectives you had in mind, what you wanted to accomplish?
BE: 02:06 I don’t think anyone clearly understands the obligations of the office until they’re involved in the office. Certainly, I had some vague idea of the approach that needed to be taken. I had some specifics as far as enriching the vocational education. I was interested in pursuing a 12-month school. I was interested, I think, more fundamentally in having an input from the teacher and principal and feeling that the most important thing in education is the teacher, and the most important thing in a school district is the principal. I like to see each school run as much as possible in accordance with the needs of the community that that school serves rather than trying to force it into a pattern, a stereotype pattern. In education the socioeconomic environment to me is the underlying factor of how Johnny is to be taught, and whether or not Mary learns will depend more on the teacher’s understanding of the surroundings, the motivations. They’ve got to first of all understand the child and remember that fundamentally they are teaching Johnny and Mary. They are not teaching math and science, they are teaching the student. That to me is the basic fundamental of all of it.
LM: While you served there was a great deal of controversy over the integration of the Houston schools. What I’d like to ask you now is to give us some idea of the interaction that went on among the board members to meet this problem. Was there a consensus on what should be done? And how were the policies that evolved decided upon?
BE: 04:09 The policies were certainly decided on by a majority vote. Some members had stronger feelings in various areas than others. Some were more concerned than others. But certainly it was a majority decision, while not equal input, and no one, I think, ever achieved their own individual desires. It was a composite that was pushed. I don’t know. You go back and look in retrospect, and many of the decisions that we can look back on were obviously questionable. But at the time we were trying to achieve as much harmony in the community, trying to separate integration as a sociological problem from the problems that you’re faced with in education. I think the biggest blunder that the American people have made, if it is a blunder, would be to intermix education and sociology and not trying to keep them separated. I always had the basic belief that they should be separated. The school district is charged with the education of the children, and the sociological ills of the community were a different project and were one that should not be addressed only to the problems of education.
LM: The school board has been accused of dragging its feet in fulfilling the orders of the courts. Do you feel that the policies were designed for this purpose?
BE: The school board was also accused of doing much more than it should, and so it just depends on which accuser you want to listen to. I don’t think we drug our feet. I think that integration was carried at a rate that was acceptable to the community. I think the record will bear out that the community would accept what we gave, and had it been pushed very much more, other problems would have occurred. I don’t know who you’re referring to as the accuser because certainly, I’ve been accused of going too fast, I’ve been accused of going too slow, but the one thing I’ve never been accused of was standing still.
LM: The criticisms weren’t necessarily directed to you specifically.
BE: Oh, I understand. I understand.
LM: For example, some outspoken representatives of the black community, like Mrs. Charles White, were unhappy about the manner in which the school board conducted its affairs.
BE: 07:22 I think Ms. White certainly would represent one of the far extremes, not necessarily the radical but the far extremes. I have been accused, on the other hand, by people who said that we should never have moved as fast as we did. So I felt like we moved at a pace that was acceptable in keeping the support of the community, and the community is that vague, ill-defined, moldable, fluid mass, and this is the problem that you have. If you go too fast, you can lose support and completely kill the school so far as its financial support. If you move too slow, then you’re in trouble in other areas. I think we covered it on an acceptable ground for the period of time that I was on the board, moving as rapidly as we could within the framework of education. I was more concerned, basically, with education than I was with the sociological problems, and I still say that integration is not an educational problem. We offered the educational opportunities, and we did it under the then existing programs that were available.
LM: In ’65 you made a statement to the effect that the Houston school board had accomplished a great deal more than most school districts in the country with regard to integration. Looking back now, would you still keep that position? Would you make that same statement?
BE: I think Houston was one of the leaders in the community, yes. And I’m not at all dissatisfied, even looking back. We went through a very trying period with, by and large, the support of the community. We’re not faced with the problems, for example, that Boston is faced with today. We had no serious clashes within the school system like what was experienced at TSU. The elements were in the community where we could have had very serious problems. I was told at one time that a decision that I was going to be faced with, that if I did one thing that there would be blood in the streets and bodies in the gutters and all of this.
LM: This was in what year now?
BE: This was in about ’64 or ’65, somewhere in there. It was a rather awesome charge and one that caused me to study very carefully the decision that I had to make. I think, in retrospect, the decision that I made was good, and it was based on the underlying philosophy that we should, number one, educate and work with the community in a sociological area but not try to intermingle education and sociological problems. I think we made firm progress. There’s no question but what we could have gone slower. There’s no question but what we could have gone faster. But the progress that we made was solid, we had the community behind us, I think, and I believe that it has proven to be best for Houston in bringing the community and its support, which is necessary to education.
LM: One other question on this area of desegregation. You had criticized Roy Wilkins and C. Anderson Davis for troublemaking in the city, in the community, with regard to integration of the schools. Specifically, what did they do that brought out that criticism?
BE: 12:09 I’d have to go back to the article that that was taken from. I don’t remember the specific instance that you’re speaking of.
LM: It had to do with picketing of the schools.
BE: Again, which time and for what purpose? I remember the second time I came back on to the school board as president. I was vice president when Joe Butler resigned, and I was reinstalled as president. The first thing that I was faced with was a picketing and a boycotting by the NAACP and Reverend Davis and some others. We sat down, as I recall, in a very quiet session. The total board chose not to meet. I felt that it was important and arranged the meeting. We discussed the problems. I explained that I was only one member of the board, and many of the problems had to do with matters of communications. They were not familiar with the communications. I opened up these lines of communication so they could understand both sides of the problems, and the matter was very quickly resolved. If you follow the basic theory that truth and honesty is the primary function of anyone, these solve the problems in most cases. Certainly, there are differences of opinions of these people and myself. There were times that I suspect I would have been ready to call them most everything because of the problems which they were causing for me. But the specific instance to which you’re referring, I’m sorry, I don’t recall. I don’t have the advantage of the research that you’ve done on that.
LM: All right. That’s understandable. We don’t expect everyone to go back on the spur of the moment and remember details. We ask these questions simply because sometimes there is something outstanding that the person will add to the article.
BE: I think the most specific would be the time that I was brought back in as president of the board and had the problem of trying to get the boycott settled and get the picketing settled. It brought home the absolute necessity for honesty and integrity, not necessarily to capitulate in your viewpoints because certainly, if my viewpoints were so weak that I couldn’t hold to them, then they should have been given up. But I had no authority other than as a member of the board, and certainly could not speak for the board. But the communications were opened up, and the problem was very quickly solved. I think this lesson, if you will, has been pointed out many, many times; that you and I look at the sky and we say that it’s blue, but what is blue to you? And we don’t necessarily talk the same language, even though we’re both speaking English. When I say that I’m happy, it relates to what I know as happiness. When you say you’re happy, it relates to what you think of as happiness. So the problem is for me to understand what you’re meaning when you say it. Once that communication gap is gone, and if you know that I am honest in what I’m trying to do, even though you disagree, you can respect the honesty, and with that respect we can start to build on the areas of communication and where the areas are weak. That was the relationship that I had in working with both extremes and in many cases the radical extremes to try to find something that we could all agree and work on.
LM: Could you define the radical extreme? What were some of their most radical policies and individuals?
BE: 16:47 The radical extreme wanted to see me in Lake Houston with cement boots on. That to me was pretty radical.
LM: (chuckles) I think that would be pretty radical in anybody’s language.
BE: This was, of course, the black Muslim belief at that time and gave me cause for concern on more than one occasion. The other extreme was, “Let’s bundle up all the blacks and put them on the ships, and what we don’t throw overboard on the way back to Africa we’ll turn loose on the beaches.” In between that you’ve got all shades of gray, and knowing that whatever decision you make is going to be an unpopular decision with everyone except those that channel in on your specific wavelength, not realizing the give and take, and understanding that politics is an art of the possible and that some of the things that you want to do personally are not necessarily the better thing for the community, that you have to look at all the viewpoints, all the thoughts, and all the ideas and try to composite those into a positive action. The one thing that I cannot tolerate is standing still because then you’re going backwards. We had to make progress and we did. The academic achievement of the children grew steadily. There were internal problems, and there were differences of opinion on the school board. The individual tends to forget sometimes the bad things that they did and remember only the positive. That’s everybody but me would do that. It’s an interesting thing. I’m trying now to write a book. I’m going back and taking the news clippings and trying to recall specific instances and try to give the viewpoint that I had at the time. And maybe when there are a few funerals, we will be able to publish the book so that it wouldn’t hurt anybody. But it should be something, and the only way that I would want to do it and the only reason for trying to expend the effort would be the experiences that I’ve had that I would like the community to profit from. If I ever can get time enough to do it, I think it would be an interesting thing, and I think it would be something that the community could profit from. I would like to see it.
LM: You’re working on it now?
BE: 19:43 Oh, yes. I’ve been trying to put these together for the last couple of years. Whenever I have a weekend and don’t have anything else to do, I pick up my tape recorder and we jot down the thoughts and ideas, and then I’ll one day get a ghost writer that I’m negotiating with now and try to put the pieces together in a semblance that would come out. I don’t know whether it’ll ever materialize or not, but I would like someday to try to let the community know some of the turmoil and some of the strife and some of the problems that made me make the decisions that I did because I think if we ever study history— I think the reason that I’m interested in your collection would be that the only hope for the future is the study of the past. Why did I do these things? Well, if someone would look at that, I think they can better equipped to make the decision in the future, and that I would hope I’m trying to do.
LM: Let’s leave the problems of the school board behind and move on to some of the issues of the Commissioners Court. What made you run for Commissioners Court? How did you get involved in that?
BE: There are really two reasons. Number one: I enjoy political life. I think everyone should do what they want to do. I always wanted to fly an airplane, so I learned to fly, and I bought an airplane. I always wanted to drive a big bus, so I got a big bus. I always wanted to run a bulldozer, so I got a big bulldozer. Well, I enjoy politics. There is no better way that I know of to, if you will, satisfy your ego, and certainly, that is part of it. There is no better way to have an input into the community. My preacher asked me one day, “Why do you do this?” And I think it’s because I love people, and I cannot do for people what I do now if I were not in political office. The power, properly used, is a very rewarding thing, and it makes me feel good to get a letter from somebody that congratulates you or thanks you for something that you were able to do. So really, I wanted to be in public office. This was not like the school board. I didn’t have people come to me and ask me to run. I was not satisfied with what I saw, and I wanted to make some changes. When you look at the political arena, if you tried to analyze—and I did years ago—what is the very best political job, to me it has to be the county commissioner.
LM: Why is that?
BE: 23:30 Number one: I have a restricted area from which to seek election. It’s much easier to work with a portion of the county than it is the total of the county. The people in my area have a general—again, you’re talking about a shade of gray, but they have a general similarity in their political beliefs. I would have a difficult time trying to relate to people that didn’t have this general belief. I would like to think that I can meet their requirements and meet their demands easier, more compatible with me than I could if I were running, for example, on a national basis. While I might, at some time, seek other kinds of political life, you have a great deal of freedom in this job to do the job as you see it. You’re not restricted as you are in many of the jobs. I’m proud of the innovations that I have put into the precinct job. We’re the first one to have a safety manual. For the first time in the history of Harris County, we are concentrating in the safety area. We have our town hall meetings or the many efforts that we’ve got, the publications that I’ve got trying to educate the community. Did you ever try to educate 900,000 people or, for that matter, 2 million people? It’s quite a chore. But I think we’re making a dent with some of the things that we’re trying to do. Again, I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s a different kind of a problem from the school board, but it is a very rewarding job, and I wanted to run.
Probably one of the more driving forces was that I was told I couldn’t win.
LM: That offers encouragement.
BE: In my case it really does. I was told by so many people that, “You can’t win. You were too scarred in the school board activities. They don’t want you because you’re hardheaded. You are determined to make waves, and that’s not what people are looking for.” And I set out to show that they were wrong. Some of these were good friends and confidantes that I had that said, “Don’t do it.” I was very foolish. I put $10,000 of my money and said, “I’ll show you.” And I’ve had a little bit of experience in political campaigning, and I’ll stand on my record, both in the campaign and how it was conducted and of the activities which I have had while in the office. Again, it stems back from honesty and integrity. It basically revolves around a love for people and the ability to do for people what they can’t do for themselves and to respond to their needs and to give them what I think a government should give them, understanding that I consider each individual responsible for himself, and his government should only provide those things which the individual cannot provide. These are the commodities that we deal in.
LM: Do you consider yourself a conservative?
BE: 28:05 You would have to define what you mean by conservative. I’ve been called too conservative, and I’ve been called too liberal. I consider myself honest, and it would, other than that, depend upon your definition. By my definition, yes. To my definition of conservatism, yes, I am. I want to conserve the principle, the philosophy, the basics of what I think have made this country what it is, and by the definition that we have or that I have right now this afternoon in 1975 of conservatism, yes. Now, if you go back 50 years, the accepted definition was different, and we could spend the next two hours trying to define conservative versus liberal.
LM: I brought up that question because in 1968 when you ran against Bill Elliott, it seemed to have been an issue of conservatism versus liberalism, and you made the statement that Elliott was being a liberal hiding behind a conservative label. That brought to mind how you put yourself in that category. I’m going by what the newspapers said. Perhaps you never even made that statement. I don’t know.
BE: I don’t know the total story from which you’re quoting one line, and—
LM: It was during the election for—
BE: Yes, I understand, but I don’t know the surroundings behind the time that I said it or even that it was properly quoted.
LM: Right. I was using that simply to get your own view of what a conservative is. It wasn’t to—
BE: My viewpoint of conservatism is we need to conserve our American philosophy and the principles that made us what we are as a nation, as a community. We need to remember our individual responsibilities. We need to be responsible for ourselves and not let Big Brother take over for us; the basic philosophy that the least government is the best government. The more a community does for itself, the better off it is. The more the individual does for himself, the better off he is. There are many parables along this line about freedoms. I would like to conserve the freedoms that we enjoy, and the only way that we can do it is going to be by meeting our individual responsibilities and obligations, and certainly, it would carry over into the financial part of it. All people would like to consider themselves financially conservative. I spend an awful lot of money, both for the county and personally, more than I ever thought I would as a school teacher, but I would like to think that I get for that a maximum return. I don’t squander it. I try to approach all of it in a businesslike fashion and get a return equal to what I spend. To me this is financial conservatism. The balance of it you could fade off into whatever parts of it that you want to fade into. I think basically you’re looking at more the individual responsibility, not letting government overgovern, making the people meet their own obligations, and not trying to take care of them. I think that people need to take care of themselves, and some of them shouldn’t be taken care of at all.
LM: What issues were responsible for your defeat in your first attempt?
BE: 32:27 I think it’s very basic. The area was a Republican area. I think it was defined as such, and when I first decided to try to run for the office, I went to the Republican headquarters at that time, and I was told no, that I was not welcome, I was not going to be accepted because they had other plans and other people that wanted to run for this job. If I had chosen to run in the Republican Party, I would have faced very stiff opposition from the organized Republican effort of that time. And recognizing that, along with an offer to run in the Democratic primary with no opposition, I felt that there was a 50-50 chance. Obviously, I was wrong. It was about 60 to 40 and not in my favor. I think the most unfortunate part of a national party is the reflection that all of the candidates get in identifying with a national party. I would like to see the party system on this basis done away with where you could look at the individual. There are many good Democrats. You don’t have to run as a Republican just to be a good guy. I can understand the need for some of the party operations, and I will support the party operation because I think it’s the best thing we’ve got, but I wish people would look more at the individual rather than the party. But when you’re looking at an area like this with as many people as we have to try to contact, you can’t possibly reach them on a personal basis. They can’t possibly know you individually. But that is the analysis that I think needs to be made, rather than because you run as a Republican you’re good or bad and vice versa. So many people say that, “My granddaddy voted the Democratic ticket, and whoever is on the Democratic ticket I’ll vote for,” and some vice versa. This, I think, is bad. I think too that in the years that this office is up for an election corresponding with the presidential election, that most people are concerned basically from the top down. And when the president runs, he gets more attention than when I run, and consequently, there’s more push in that area. I voted for the Republican nominee the year that I first lost my race as a Democrat, and more people went in and voted only for that office and did so by pulling one lever, and they were not concerned and did not know of the other races. This is my rather unbiased opinion, as all my opinions are unbiased, but I think this is the problem, the handicap, that people in public office have.
LM: What did you do in the interval between the first election and the second to overcome this problem? How did you overcome it?
BE: 36:29 I really didn’t address myself to the problem. I licked my wounds. I overcame the rebuke, if you will, of losing an election. It was a terrible blow. You can’t imagine how much it can mean to an individual. But it was a good lesson. Following that election, I had already determined that I was going to get off of the school board, and many of my friends told me that if I had resigned the school board, they would have voted for me, but they wanted to see me stay on the school board, and consequently, they thought I would if I weren’t commissioner. I don’t know. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t. But I more or less for some period of time said, “To hell with it. I’m going to make money.” And I set out to build my business empire, which came along very nicely up until the time I got back into politics and ran into the time restrictions as well as the other restrictions that public life places on you.
LM: When you assumed your new position, you spoke of improving grassroots government. How successful have you been in fulfilling that objective, in attaining it?
BE: During the course of the campaign every candidate is pushed into coffees and teas and face-to-face contact. That’s where you learn what the people are thinking. I was determined to carry this further, and I have used my personal motor coach. Many people have not been able to differentiate between what is mine and what is the county’s, but I just sold my motor coach. It was a Continental Trailways bus that I had built into a motor home, and it was quite expensive, so much so that I had to sell it. But I have taken it out on many occasions, wherever there is a problem.
One of the early times we had a rather peculiar intersection, as most of them are on Harwin and Rogersdale, and on a rainy Saturday afternoon I put up signs and said, “We’ll be here. Stop by and give us your ideas.” I’m sitting there with my motor coach on a rainy and muddy afternoon, and a man stopped his car, backed up a half a block, and came on my beautiful coach with his muddy shoes, and he sat down to say that, “I’m just a working man. I don’t know anything about traffic engineering, but if you would do this, it would sure help me.” And his thought made a lot of sense, so we redesigned that intersection the way he suggested. I don’t know how many hours we’ve saved people that were trying to approach that intersection. Up to that point the traffic engineers looked at it and said, “This is the way it ought to be,” and went to the next problem. But we had the personal input.
40:19 Another classic example was the intersection of Memorial and Westbelt. Obviously, something needed to be done, and I gave it to the traffic engineers, and they designed a beautiful intersection, an expensive intersection. All engineers design expensive things. I was quite proud of it, and I put it up on a bulletin board, and I posted a notice that said, “Come tell me what you think.” And we met on the esplanade at Westbelt. I think it was a Thursday or Friday afternoon. Quite a few people stopped, and they said, “We don’t think this is any good. We think you need to do that.” So they started drawing lines. We had quite a bit of discussion about it, and they came up with a good idea. And for a fraction of what had been anticipated we improved the intersection to do what they wanted to be done.
There are hundreds of examples where we’ve tried this. The idea is that people should come up with the answer. People have a lot of intelligence if they’re given the opportunity and if they have the forum to speak. So I have tried to provide that for them. Every time there is a serious problem, if a bridge goes down or if a community has a problem with its streets, I go to them, and I don’t go to them with the absolute answer. I’ll go to them with a suggestion and say, “Now you tell me, what do you want me to do? It’s your money. You tell me how you think it ought to be fixed.” And many times these ideas are tremendous.
Dan Cox, the mayor of Katy, came to me with the idea of a T type intersection. Out here in the country many of these old roads around the farms are blacktop roads now, and when it rains, they’re slick and people are not familiar with the roads and they’re going too fast or they’re drunk. They all of a sudden come upon a stop sign and they can’t stop. Well, they were running into a 6-foot ditch and getting themselves killed. He said that if we could get some old culvert and put it in that ditch, that when they ran over that stop sign, they would just go out into the rice field, and their chances for being killed would be greatly reduced. So I went to the concrete pipe companies, and they gave us all their seconds that they couldn’t use. We couldn’t use them for the roads, but we put across that ditch in front of that T type intersection these old culverts and put a little dirt on it. I wanted to keep track of how many times cars went over it, so we made up a sign that said, “Lifesaver Program. This Idea from Dan Cox. Give Us Your Ideas.” And we’ve replaced 150 of those signs. The highlight of the program was that a school bus driver from Katy called me, and he said he had always laughed about it. He thought the signs were there just for advertising. But that particular afternoon the brakes went out on his school bus, and he carried 72 kids 200 feet into the rice field because it was there, and he quit laughing. But it was there because Dan Cox had an idea because we have set up the forum by which people can put in to the procedures that their government is going to follow.
44:08 I make, I guess it would average, three civic clubs a week. I don’t go out there and make a speech; I go out there and ask for ideas. I’ve developed a little card that we enclose in practically all of our mailings, and I pass them out at these meetings. “Take this card home, and when you find an idea that you think we ought to do, you send it to me.” And we get quite a few of these back. I publish what is called an Eckels Report, and in that I ask for the response, and we get quite a few back. I have a regularly scheduled program because people say that government is removed. “We try to call you and we get—“ I’ve got 10 lines out here, and 20% of the time they’re all busy. I’m out quite a bit. There’s no way I can return all the phone calls that I get, but I have a town hall meeting where I sit down with the public on a regular basis. I have four road camps. The first Monday I’m in Alief, the second Monday here at Addicks, the third Monday in Cypress, and the fourth Monday in Spring. And when I sit down with you in Cypress and we discuss your problems, we keep notes, and I know that I’ll be back next month, and you know that I’ll be back next month, and I don’t want to have to stand in front of you and explain why we haven’t done what I said we would do and we haven’t followed your suggestions and your ideas. So the people know, and I think that it’s helped. I think certainly, we’ve not reached the ultimate, but as government grows bigger, the individual becomes smaller, and I’m trying to get around that. I’m trying to go back to the old days where you could walk down the street and you knew everyone and you knew what their problems were because you played dominoes with them or you played bridge with them or you saw them in church. But with two million people in our county, there’s no way you’re going to know all of the people or all of the shades of gray. But we’re trying to be available, not necessarily to the individual because that is an impossible task but to groups. And if three or four people can get together, that’s where I think I need to be if you can covey up the people where you can get a small, collected group. It’s generally a one-way type program, but I try to let the civic clubs and the precinct chairman know what we’re doing, and we get a very good feedback from this group. The precinct chairman is the first level of elected office, and then your civic club falls in that area somewhere, and between these two you can generally find an active community member that can properly represent that area, and I put a lot of faith in those representations. That’s what I’ve tried to do in developing the grassroots, more because I need the help.
LM: Is the Commissioners Court composed among the members of alliances, either political or personal alliances? How do the members operate? Is there anyone you can count on as a friend on the Court?
BE: I would hope they’re all friends.
LM: Politically speaking.
BE: 48:11 I think you probably have a great deal of independence. Remember that you’re talking about five individuals. With some, communication is easier than with others. With some, if they give you their word, you know that it’s good, and with others, it’s not so good. They’re not as firm, even if you disagree with them. If we sit down and you say that, “I think that’s a bad idea,” I’d like to know that that’s what you think and that you’re able to make up your mind and not change it with the next person that talks to you. I don’t know of any alliances. I’m not particularly trying to form any. I would like to be honest in my dealings with all the members of the Court, and I would like to be open to any suggestions that any member might have.
LM: I didn’t mean to imply anything sinister by it.
BE: I understand.
LM: For example, using the word conservative. People that have a similar belief of how government should be operated would tend to vote together. That was the question I was trying to get at originally. Are there others that you would consider conservative in the way that you described before?
BE: Yes. There are some that I would think more conservative than others. But the majority of actions which the Court takes are not based on liberal or conservative philosophy. They are more like environmentalists versus the constructionists; they are dollar questions. Much of it does underlie with the political theory, but you have to look pretty close to find it. I would hope that I conduct myself so that I am open to suggestions that are constructive to the community. Commissioner Bass is certainly the most liberal member of the Court at this time, but I have not found him difficult to work with because he has been honest in his dealings, and his word has been good. I have not found difficulty in dealing with any of them except there are some that you can depend on more so than the others.
LM: How would you describe your relationship with Judge Elliott?
BE: 51:22 I wouldn’t think we were best of friends. I have a great deal of respect for Bill Elliott, the real Bill Elliott. I think he is a very intelligent person. I think he was dedicated to a political philosophy that I’m not particular akin to. I think he probably knew and understood more about county government than most people that I know, certainly more than what we see on the Court now. He had a concept that I think was very helpful. I respected him a great deal. I’m sorry that we did not communicate more. I tried to develop with him the opportunity for an input. He did not like the idea of other people having an input, and he is very dedicated to the idea that there’s no such thing as a good Republican. I mean, “You’re just from the wrong side of the tracks, and you can’t have any good ideas.” And that was unfortunate, but I think he is a dedicated person. He worked hard, and I think again offers a lesson that all of us should learn very well that we are only warming this seat for the next person that comes along and that we are there to represent the people and not to try to bulldoze, if you will, or to dominate unduly the position or the opportunities that the position affords.
LM: In answering this question you used the words the real Bill Elliott as if there was another side to him here that—
BE: No. This goes back to the early days when Commissioner Bill Elliott first got involved in politics. He ran against the real Bill Elliott. It was a joke at the time between the man that was city councilman and the man that was county judge for 16 years.
LM: Some observers have said that the unseating of Bill Elliott demonstrates that you have a great deal of influence in the GOP; that you’ve managed to build up quite a powerful position. Would you care to comment on that?
BE: (chuckles) I don’t think that the unseating of Judge Elliott was as much the doing of the GOP as it was the doing of Bill Elliott. I don’t think that Jon Lindsay as the Republican nominee defeated Bill Elliott. I think that Bill Elliott defeated Bill Elliott. His mannerism, his pursuit of his position and the opportunities that it offered defeated him. I think that if you were to try to analyze my influence, you would have but to look at Jon Lindsay and how little he listens to me or anyone that I’m aware of would see how much influence I have over him. He apparently goes the other way so that he would not indicate, and again, I think the news media was making the assumption that he was my boy, but I don’t have any boys; I don’t want any. I’m not trying to build a power structure. I do intend to move, I do intend to make waves, but I’m not trying to build a power base, I’m not trying to go anywhere; I’m just trying to make this the best job that I can and to do it with people. I often say that you have to be elected to a political position before you can clearly demonstrate your inherited ignorance and that those of us in political office should remember that we were dumb enough to seek this office and hope and pray that the people are smart enough to give us all the help that they can. I’m smart enough to go to the people and to listen and to take their ideas and try to do something with them. But so far as all of the measurements of the community, if I were to devote the same effort to making a living that I do to politics, I would not have nearly as many headaches, and I would make considerably more money than I do in the political realm. I could not afford the political realm if I did not have the other income to help support it.
LM: You hear many people speak about political office as if it was a means to advance oneself outside the office. Most of these times it’s merely rumors that people have. With your experience in county government, have you found that there is a great deal of influence or attempts to influence commissioners to do their bidding? Is the pressure really there as great as most people think it is?
BE: 57:50 Oh, yeah. I’ve been offered bribes in one form or another. It would be easy to accept, and I think it has been accepted in the past in one form or another. But I would hope that, number one, I would recognize that everyone has their price, and for a price I would do a thing. The price has got to be high enough, and you’ve got to understand the context to which I make that statement. If somebody walked in here with $10 million in hundred dollar bills and no strings that I could take off with for the rest of my life, they would sure get my attention. The opportunity exists, and certainly, the decisions are the power of this office, and the decisions that I make would give you the opportunity for dishonest and immoral opportunities. But again, you’ve got to look at the individual. I get up every morning and I shave myself and I look in the mirror when I do. And you’ve got to have in office people that are willing to live an honest life. There are a lot of things I could do that nobody would ever know about. But I’d know. The commissioner’s office is a very influential one, particularly in the area in which we work, but I subscribe totally to the philosophy that mine is a public life. I don’t have the right to individual thoughts and actions; that you have a right to know everything that I do. I go to the bathroom three times a day. In private life it’s none of your business, but in public life it is. This was a lesson that I learned very early, that everything that I do is your business as the public, and I need to conduct myself in such a way that I will earn your respect because really, the only thing that I can leave on the face of this earth is my reputation. The rest of it is material and it’s gone; it’s dissipated shortly after you’re gone. But if I conduct myself in a proper fashion, you will remember me as an honest individual that tried to do something. And that’s the reputation that I want to leave behind. I do not want to get one of an influenced peddler or a power monger or this type of thing. It would be easy to try to build it to that, but I think again we should look at history, and I’d like to warm this chair a little longer than some of those that have shown these tendencies.
LM: If I can turn away for a moment and turn to another area, dealing with the relatively newly appointed personnel director, Gus Taylor, there have been some problems between Mr. Taylor and the Commissioners Court over policy and so on. What is the real issue here?
BE: 1:01:56 Gus is a very capable person. I think there’s probably some communication gap between what he is expected to do and what he expects to do. If we could ever solve this problem, then the problem certainly would evaporate because I think he would do the bidding of the Court. I think that many of the differences of opinion have been greatly exaggerated by the news media. The problem as I see it is Gus still has not developed what I would call a personnel department, and I’m not sure the Court wants him to. I’m not sure I want him to. He is handling some personnel problems, and that’s well and good. We are under Court edict to try to follow the Equal Employment Statutes, and certainly, he needs to pursue that. But I don’t think there are any serious problems in this area. Remember, here is a man working in an ill-defined position, trying to please five people, one of whom voted to hire him. I’ve known Gus many years, and I think by virtue of the fact that he’s still there indicates that he has done a pretty good job. I disagree with my wife but I’m still married. I would hate to see anyone in county government— I think county government suffers from too many yes men. We need some people that have a better defined obligation and the guts enough to stand up to the Court and say, “You told me to do this and I have done it. If you change your mind, that’s your problem.” I think Gus has gotten out of line in some areas.
LM: Such as?
BE: The report that I think the news article to which you are alluding. He went back almost six or eight months and rehashed facts that were no longer true and, in the Court’s opinion and my opinion as a member of the Court, was giving the elusion that these were the circumstances of this date when they were not. And rather than make his report to the members of the Court, they were made to the press, which was always a tragic mistake. You can’t argue with the Court and win if you’re an employee of the Court, and all members of the county are. I think it was a question of his method of handling the problem. He did not, in my judgment, follow the directions that he was given, and he brought out old facts that were not clearly understood by the press and immediately, because they were rather sensitive in nature, were pounced upon, and the Court in turn said, “You should have handled it in a more discrete fashion, and you should have been more careful in your explanations.”
LM: There was one report that through his policies the county lost approximately $800,000 in federal funds. Can you recall that?
BE: 1:05:49 No. There were some very sloppy policies in the manpower area in the federal programs, but I’m not sure what we lost when we lost those funds. The handling, the bookkeeping, the hiring of some of the people in the Manpower programs, which were not done by Gus Taylor, apparently are going to cost the taxpayers a great deal of money because some of the fine print in those federal grants were that you will hire people that live in the unincorporated portions of Harris County, and then they hired people that lived in the incorporated areas of Harris County, and consequently, the funds which were paid from the grant are now being demanded back because they were not in the unincorporated areas. It’s nitpicking, if you will. The people needed the job, and they were hired by the county, and they lived in the county, but there was not very close supervision to see that they lived in the unincorporated areas.
LM: You mentioned that you’re not quite sure whether the Court or even yourself really want to see a county personnel office. Does that mean that this job is temporary?
BE: No, I don’t think so. Again, I think Gus has performed a function. Now, whether he is a personnel director is a debatable issue, I think. I think he has demonstrated his ability to work in personnel matters, and I think maybe we need to come to a clearer understanding, and I have been urging and hope some day to have job descriptions for all members of county employment to the extent that I have them in my precinct, where everybody can look at the written page and say, “These are my obligations. This I am expected to do.” And they will know that blue is blue and which hue it is, not yours or mine, but the only way that I know is to clearly define everybody’s obligation, and it has not been done. I would hope some day it can be. That’s true not only for Gus but for all members of the county family.
LM: There was one issue that came up concerning the consolidation of county services. I think it was proposed by Commissioner Bass some time ago, and it was opposed by several members. I believe you opposed it. Could you give me the reasons for your opposition to that program?
BE: 1:08:45 I don’t remember the program to which you refer. I have been in favor of consolidating some factions where there are duplications, but I’m not in favor, for example, of doing away with the county’s pollution control. I think if anything, the city of Houston should consolidate theirs with ours and let us do it for the total of the county. This is unacceptable to the city. I think they’re doing a great deal in cooperation, and I again point with some degree of pride to the cooperative effort that I have put forth in the joint projects such as Memorial Drive and Osage Ditch where I have worked with the city. There are many areas where we can combine efforts, but it’s more on the basis of the top leadership. I’m very disappointed at the lack of cooperation demonstrated by the Parks Department in the city of Houston and with those of us in Harris County. There is zilch. There is no cooperative effort whatsoever. But I think if the mayor’s position were changed or if you had a different mayor, and the mayor called in and said, “Look, we want to do these things, and you go see that they are done,” then immediately you would have a cooperative effort. So I try to operate on the echelon which I am elected; to get cooperation between the various entities, and I think we’re achieving it. I’m sorry I don’t know the specific instances. I don’t think the county is meeting its obligation so far as some of the operations are concerned. Mass transit is a good example.
LM: Have you received cooperation on most issues from Mayor Hofheinz?
BE: No. A good example is the flood insurance program. We are all under the same federal guidelines for the flood insurance, flood regulations, land control, if you will. I devised a system. I say I devised; I got a group together, an advisory committee, when I was given this job by the county made up of homeowners, engineers, architects, developers, mortgage financiers, all people concerned, and I explained to this group, “You’ve got a problem. Do you want me to screw it up, or do you want to tell me what to do to keep it straight and help solve it?” So they sat down and worked with me, and we devised a program of variances, of regulations, that has proved to be quite acceptable and quite workable. The same procedures, the same facts, are available to the city of Houston, and we have been instrumental in working with our neighboring counties, trying to have one broad set of regulations so that people working in this general area will know this is what they have to work with. We tried on several attempts to get Fred to adopt the same things, and if he found objections to what we had, to tell us what those objections were and we would change them so that we could work together and we would have one set of regulations for the developers and the homeowners and the individuals in our Harris County area. Most of the other cities have adopted these same regulations. An example: When they were drawing up the maps, the flood plain maps for Harris County and the city of Houston, we found that they were greatly inaccurate, and I went to Washington with a delegation from my advisory committee, and I went up on the Hill and I told all of our elected representatives, “We’ve got a problem, and here it is. This is federal, and we need your help.” And with their help we were able to get the FIA to accept the changes that the local engineers had, and consequently, we corrected the maps. But the city of Houston, operating without this advice and counsel, didn’t, for some reason or another, understand that the maps were inaccurate until they were printed and given to them. And the city of Houston does not have any variance program. I’m sorry because it makes the man building on this side of the fence follow one set of regulations and on that side of the fence another when the same facts are available to both. We have tried and offered to compromise, but the only response is, “No. We’re not interested. We’re going to do it our way and go down the road.” I think this is unfortunate. I think he’s getting bad advice. But there’s one thing I have noticed in the years that I’ve been in Houston, and that is the mayor’s job changes. I think maybe if we work, that either his attitude will change or somewhere down the line we will find a common denominator. He told me last fall that he would respect and work with the county to be the sponsoring agent to have a mass transit program for greater Houston. That includes greater Harris County and the county being the elected representative for the area. But when we got to the legislature, and if you look at the mass transit bill that was passed, it’s not one that will serve anything other than Houston, in my opinion. It’s not a Harris County bill; it’s a city of Houston bill. And Harris County is made up of 25 or 30 separate incorporated areas plus in my area, my precinct, there is 808 square miles and I would suspect that probably 90% of it is made up of unincorporated areas.
LM: Why is there this lack of cooperation? Is it political? Personality?
BE: 1:15:44 I think it’s probably a combination of everything. Again, it would get back to communications. If we were in a condition where we could communicate regularly one-to-one, face-to-face, then I think probably that we could solve it. But the mayor’s job is an awesome job. If you figure and look at the structure of the government in Harris County, he has, individually, the responsibility for the operation of the megatropolis of Houston, and unless you have a great many qualified people handling the street and bridge, the sewer, the streets, the water, the many areas, then you’ve got an impossible task and the problem of finding time to communicate.
LM: Do you have any specific changes you would like to see to make the county government more effective? Do you see the need for some basic institutional changes?
BE: 1:16:56 I think basically, the county government is the most American system that you can have. The checks and balances of county government are so obvious to those that study it in comparison to the big city government where you have five instead of one and where you have elected sheriffs instead of appointed police chiefs and elected tax assessor/collector versus the appointed tax assessor/collector. I think the checks and balances are quite good. I would like to see us address ourselves to a more businesslike operation and to see us have the opportunity to devise a clear understanding, a written understanding, of what is expected of the many subordinates to the Court. The opportunity to sit together in a relaxed atmosphere and communicate would solve most of the problems. We are all too busy going in separate directions.
But the biggest change that I would make is that we are not addressing the problem as a business would. We’re basing our decisions on emotions, and they’re not using business judgment. That, I think, is wrong. There needs to be a clear definition of who is to do what and some analysis. I have proposed and so far been unable to get a breakfast schedule. Once a month I think all elected members of the county family should join together for breakfast, not necessarily for a discussion of any specific item but to say, “Hey, Jack. Hey, Carl. I hear you got drunk last night.” We need to know each other as individuals a little bit better. The idea has been rejected so far, and I think that’s unfortunate. I did have a seminar last January where we invited all elected officials, and all but one came and participated with leaders in the community to discuss the problems of county government. Many good ideas were derived from that, and I think it was helpful. I intend to try to do it again. The radical changes, I don’t think there are any. There are many small changes. Again, if you look at county government like you look at the original Constitution, the Constitution was a pretty good, sound, basic instrument, and I would not want to make any major changes.
LM: I assume, then, that you’re opposed to some of the ideas that have been thrown around concerning one metropolitan government sort of incorporating both the city and the county into one governing body.
BE: I have found that most people that discuss this— I haven’t seen it thrown around generally, but most people that discuss it have absolutely no insight into county government versus city government. County government does not correspond with city government. We do not have corresponding functions across the board. Some of them, yes. I think the county could collect taxes much more effectively for everybody and have one county tax assessor/collector doing it for all the school districts and certainly for the city. But you see, that takes away from the mayor the possible political changes that can be brought into it, and I think, therefore, it won’t be accomplished. I don’t know how you could ever combine them. The county is charged with the judicial system, not the city. The county represents all the people in the county, and there is no city that does, and certainly, Houston with its specialized interests is not going to be concerned about all the others.
[end of 046_01] 1:21:10
LM: [beginning of 046_02] 00:06 Continuing the interview.
BE: I think that certainly the future is going to bring a more accelerating problem with the growth that we’re experiencing. I think you’re going to find Houston growing, and you’re going to find other areas attempting to incorporate. But even if one city occupied the total county, the functions of county government are so vastly different from city government that you would still need the two, and certainly, if you were to make a choice between the city form of government versus the county form of government, I would have to choose the county form because of its checks and balances and its spreading of responsibility and its spreading of the opportunity for—oh, I’m searching for a word that won’t be taken too far out of context. The county government when it acts through the Commissioners Court is a composite of five men. When the city acts, it acts through one. And I think five minds, even though four of them don’t totally agree with mine, are better than one. My ideas are certainly more firm and I think more positive, more progressive, than one. I think this is important.
LM: I see I’ve used up more time than I originally planned on, and I want to thank you for your indulgence and again for cooperating with us in this interview.
BE: I hope that the people that listen to this over the years—and I hope it’s kept to where 20 years or 100 years from now people can look back—I hope they will understand some of the turmoil that goes on for those of us that are trying to do what is right. We don’t always make the right decisions, but we don’t intend to be perfect. The only perfect man was crucified, and sometimes I feel like I have been but not to the same extent. I think that it’s constructive. I congratulate you and your group. I hope that what we’ve done here this afternoon will be constructive to those that study it in the future.
LM: Thank you.
[end of 046_02] 02:40