Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has received her share of criticism since unseating Ed Emmett in the 2018 election. There have been critiques about her age, political experience and even her use of the Spanish language while addressing some of her constituents.
The 28-year-old Colombia native – the first woman and first Latina to be elected as the county’s top executive – does not shy away from it. She welcomes feedback and even is soliciting it.
Hidalgo announced Thursday that Harris County has launched an anonymous reporting system aimed at holding it accountable. Citizens, along with the county’s 20,000 or so employees, are encouraged to report suspected instances of fraud, abuse or wasteful spending in county government through a telephone hotline or the county website.
If Harris County residents want to tell Hidalgo how she can do a better job, that’s OK, too.
“We welcome it,” she said. “Part of what we’ve done this past year is what we’re trying to call co-governance. It’s not making policy without consulting folks that are most affected.”
Suspicious activity such as forgery and excessive or improper use of county assets can be reported by phone at 866-556-8181 or through an online form at harriscountytx.gov. The hotline will be available in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese and managed by a third party to ensure confidentiality.
The Harris County Auditor’s Office will review tips within 72 hours. Credible cases will be reviewed by the auditor’s office, referred to the appropriate internal division or escalated to the Harris County Attorney’s Office.
Hidalgo said the idea for the reporting system, which cost about $30,000 to launch and will cost about $30,000 annually to operate, came from the auditor’s office and was not in response to a particular incident. The Houston Chronicle reported that the county was nearly defrauded for $888,000 in 2017, when it initially sent the money to someone who claimed to represent a contractor that had made repairs in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
“In recent years, we’ve focused on cybersecurity and heavily scrutinizing and verifying every payment that goes out,” Harris County Auditor Mike Post said in a statement released by the county. “But we recognize the potential for fraud, waste or abuse is significant for a county our size. We want to make sure every employee, vendor and community member is safely empowered to say something if they see something.”
Hidalgo said the reporting system is modeled after the one in Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the United States. She said Harris County is the third-largest, with nearly 5 million people, and conducts more than 10,000 monthly transactions totaling more than $140 million.
Launching such a reporting system is a matter of due diligence and bringing the county up to speed with similar governmental agencies, Hidalgo said. It’s also part of her commitment to transparency and being a responsible steward of the county’s resources as she and the four county commissioners oversee an annual operating budget of about $5 billion.
Hidalgo said budgeting has become a more extensive process under her watch, and commissioners court meetings have become longer with more involvement from citizens. She has other outreach initiatives in the works, including a 3-1-1 system for county services.
“We truly believe that as we develop our programs, we need the input of the community,” Hidalgo said. “To the extent that they’re watching and holding us accountable, we’ll do a better job.”