Interview with County Judge Sarah Eckhardt

Interview with County Judge Sarah Eckhardt

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In order to raise awareness of civics and government in Travis County, Austin Tech Alliance conducts periodic interviews with our elected officials. This month we’re featuring Judge Sarah Eckhardt.

How would you describe your work with Travis County?
“County Judge” is a title that leads to confusion and isn’t that descriptive of what I do. There are 20 District Judges, nine County Court at Law Judges and five Justices of the Peace. I am the only County Judge; I don’t wear a robe and I don’t decide civil or criminal cases. I am the chief administrative officer of the county and I preside over the Commissioners Court. I represent all Travis County residents and the four commissioners, who each represent roughly a quarter of Travis County residents within their precincts. The Commissioners Court serves both legislative and executive functions. The Court establishes county-wide policies, establishes fees, sets the property tax rate and the budget, and directly manages investments in parks and conservation areas, transportation, emergency response, economic development and health and human services. The County Judge has been likened to Mayor of the County.

What do you love about Travis County and what makes it unique?
What is great is also what presents our greatest challenges. People are attracted to Travis County for great education, great jobs, great green spaces and great lifestyle. Therefore, our population has just about doubled every 30 years since 1900. The County Judge and the Commissioners Court have responsibilities to figure out how we share and preserve our greatness with a growing population.

What does a day in the life of a County Judge look like?
Because of the incredible diversity of the 254 counties in Texas, I can only speak about what the days in the life of an urban county judge look like. My days revolve around Tuesday Voting Sessions where the Court sets priorities and makes decisions. So, my office time is a balance of individual work time, meetings with staff and meetings with constituents and interested parties around the issues that are or are coming before the Commissioners Court. My lunch times and evening hours often include relationship building, ceremonial and political events.

How did you get to where you are and why does your job matter to you?
After graduating from law school and the LBJ School of Public Policy, I worked for eight years as an Assistant County Attorney on both criminal and civil matters. After that, I worked for a brief time at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. I ran and won the Precinct 2 Commissioner seat and served in that role for seven years. I then ran and won the position of County Judge. This is not to say I always saw myself in this role. Until I was 30, I was an owner/operator of a popular New York City restaurant named Nadine’s and an actor/director member of David Mamet’s Atlantic Theater Company.

You’ve been a public servant for over a decade – what have been some of the best times,
when have you witnessed the most civic engagement, and what are you most looking
forward to?
I am an ardent believer in the creativity of conflict. Civic engagement is highest in conflict. Satisfaction is most resonant when we make big moves forward in issue areas with which we have long struggled. So, I am looking forward to the next conflict, the next struggle that will evolve how we meet community needs.

What are some of Travis County’s major challenges?
Travis County Is Green

Challenges: Counties do not have the authority from the State to address rapid population growth and Climate Change. We cannot zone and our only revenue source is the overburdened property tax. But we have made great strides by purchasing conservation easements and establishing parks throughout Travis County to preserve our air and water and at least influence where our population settles.

Travis County Is Mobile
Challenges: Rapid population growth and over-reliance on single occupant vehicle travel slows us down. The legislature has tightly curtailed counties’ authority to provide anything other than roadways and capped or even blocked funding sources. But we are exploring novel ways we can participate in Project Connect and bring in alternative revenue sources, like toll road revenues to expand transit services throughout the county.

Travis County Is Healthy
Challenges: The growing divide between the rich and poor in our country is starkly illustrated in the disparity of access to healthcare. Further exacerbating this disparity, the Texas Legislature has capped or even blocked funding for affordable healthcare and for specific services such as women’s reproductive services. But we have created a Hospital District, invested in a medical school and collaborated with non-profit clinics and private hospitals. Collectively we continue to find local ways to bypass the austerity imposed by the Texas Legislature.

Travis County Is Just
Challenges: I often hear, “The Criminal Justice System is broken,” and I agree. I speak from experience that in liberal Travis County most of the easy stuff has already been done. Most of those accused in Travis County are released on their own recognizance and directed toward treatment rather than prosecution. However, we still struggle with the ugly stuff embedded in the very foundations of our justice system – the racial disparities, the failure to hold the wealthy and powerful accountable and the tragedy of treating mental illness and substance use disorders as crimes rather than health issues. But our jail bookings are now lower than they were in the 1990’s, we are making big improvements in the quality of criminal defense and we continue to divert larger percentages of defendants into treatment without the permanent consequences of a criminal record.

Travis County Is Engaged
Challenge: Travis County residents are highly engaged. We have higher voter registration and voter turnout than almost any place else in Texas. We have lively debate over public policy. And we volunteer for causes we are committed to. Where we struggle is in seeking out the engagement of those not traditionally included and in elevating the tone and effectiveness of the engagement. A big opportunity for engagement is coming with the Census. Please help us count everyone in Travis County because everyone in Travis County counts!

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