RECONSTRUCTION Can legislative action repair the troubled Department of Public Safety? BY VICTORIA ROSSI It’s been a year since a still-unidentified arsonist lobbed a Molotov cocktail at the Texas Governor’s Mansion. The Greek Revival columns out front are still black from the smoke, but crews have torn out damaged walls, cleared away debris and stabilized the foundation. Now, with a mix of federal stimulus funds, state money and private cash, officials say they’re ready to rebuild. The Texas Department of Public Safety underwent a razing of its own this session, and plans to rebuild the state’s top lawenforcement agency, with its history of scandals and chronic mismanagement, are under way. The Governor’s Mansion burned on DPS’s watch. Whether or not it’s fair to say that DPS could have prevented the arson, the fire added fuel to the department’s many critics’ calls for a thorough reconstruction of the agency. “Unless you have Fortress America, a large number of people guarding constantly, that sort of stuff is going to happen,” Scott Henson, creator of the criminal-justice blog Grits for Breakfast, says of the fire. “But internally, the agency was almost megalomaniacally seeking power. It was resented by local law enforcement, and I think that’s contributed a lot to the willingness of people to go after DPS. Best time to kick ’em is when they’re down.” The time was ripe for reform. The Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative body that reviews each state agency every 12 years and recommends corrective action to the Legislature, had released its report on DPS just a month before the fire. The report described security lapses and structural inefficiencies; the fire made the point more dramatically. Weeks later, a legislative review panel harshly criticized DPS, a billiondollar agency with more than 8,00o employees, as disorganized and outdated. Lawmakers were taken aback to hear Col. Tommy Davis Jr., the department’s director, avow that DPS was “operating better than I’ve ever seen it” in the 43 years he’d worked there. Davis’ career was over by August. A $1 million study by the private firm Deloitte & Touche followed. The conclusion, in short, was that DPS needed a thorough overhaul. The department “had gone a little stale,” says Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, a member of the Sunset Commission who wrote the sunset bill to restructure the agency. “Obviously there were some very troubling patterns.” “It’s been a culture where there’s a lot of resistance to change says Sen. Juan Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat who carried the Senate bill to remake DPS. “There’s a good-old-boys system.” Unlike those of other major agencies up for sunset review this yearincluding the departments of Transportation and the partisan stalemate that killed hundred of bills in the last week license and vehicle inspection divisions, setting “civilian business” goals for shorter lines at licensing offices and less hold time at call centers. It puts the Division of Emergency Management, which deals with disasters like last year’s Hurricane Ike, under DPS’s management rather than the governor’s. Perhaps the most significant reform is the creation of an inspector general to investigate complaints and report directly to the Public Safety Commission, a five-person oversight panel appointed by the governor. Women and minorities at the agency have long complained of being passed up for promotions. The need to “transform the culture” of DPS, as Hinojosa puts it, was made painfully clear in early May when Col. Stanley Clark, who’d replaced Davis as the agency’s director, resigned after three women employees leveled charges of sexual harassment. “I hope that [incident] will help people recognize that for years DPS has had these issues,” says Phillip Durst, an Austin lawyer who represented DPS Sgt. Thomas Williams in a successful lawsuit last year. Williams, once among the elite detail guarding Gov. Rick Perry and his family, accused DPS of retaliating after he filed complaints alleging sexual harassment of a Capitol trooper and race and sex discrimination within the agency. A jury awarded Williams $620,000. \(The state has filed Henson says that the sunset legislation could help turn the beleaguered agency around. But much depends on the quality of new leadership at DPS, where huge turnover among the upper command has left a vacuum. “These things always depend on how they’re implemented:’ Henson says. “There’s no magic bullet. That depends on who’s in charge and what they do.” * While most of the session’s important bills died during the House’s last-minute meltdown, lawmakers did manage to pass one vital piece of legislation: a bill to keep teens 161/2 and under out of tanning booths. One of the bill’s few skeptics, Republican Rep. Jodie Laubenberg of Parker, sarcastically grilled the bill’s author, Carrollton Republican Burt Solomons, about why it didn’t go further. “What about those girls laying out there on the beach with the baby oil?” she demanded. “We need to put a bill on that one. My God! They are frying like little fish out there!” Solomons responded that a tanning booth was 15 times stronger than the sun, an expressway to melanoma. Laubenberg raised another concern: that high-school cheerleaders would be forced to violate the tanning-bed ban to obtain the requisite golden-brown tan. Otherwise, “You’re going to change the glare on the lights of the Friday night lights,” she warnedstrangely, to no avail. SESSION SNAPSHOT 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 26, 2009
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