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Harris County Commissioners Court meetings run long. Lately, they have been running six, seven, sometimes almost eight hours.

Members of the county-wide governing body, responsible to nearly 5 million constituents, tout their extensive discussions during meetings as being more transparent than ever before.

Government ethics experts, however, say transparency does not always equate to improved functionality, and that Harris County officials must address other meeting issues, including efficiency and accessibility.

Here are three ways those experts say Commissioners Court’s meetings could be more useful and accessible to the public:

More meetings

If county officials met more frequently, it likely would make meetings shorter and more efficient — and stop the agenda from regularly having more than 400 items.

“If there's really that much work that these officials need to deal with, then maybe that requires meeting more frequently, maybe it requires reprioritizing,” said David Cuillier, director of the Brechner Center for the Advancement of the First Amendment at the University of Florida.

One option, experts said, is to better utilize the county’s standing business court meetings.

Business court generally is held between regular Commissioner Court meetings as a way to approve payments, contracts or time-sensitive county business. Business court meetings typically only last a moment or two and rarely go longer than 10 minutes. If an item on the business court agenda needs discussion, it must be moved to the court’s next regular meeting.

Additionally, the court could modify rules around what members discuss and decide. Perhaps, the experts said, some approvals could be shifted to other entities. One example would be raising the purchasing threshold so commissioners — and the agenda — are not bogged down by purchases that can sometimes amount to as little as $10.

“That way you don’t have to go to the main decision making body and delegate some of those decisions,”Cuillier said.

Change meeting structure

Another way Harris County officials could improve the efficiency and cut down the length of Commissioners Court meetings is by changing the structure.

Currently, Commissioners Court is scheduled to hold meetings twice a month on Tuesdays beginning at 10 a.m. At these meetings, the court conducts the business of the county by passing resolutions, approving contracts and payments, and greenlighting projects and initiatives. They also set aside time to hear from members of the public.

In both the city of Houston and Maricopa County, which is in Arizona and has a similarly sized population to Harris, government officials break those meetings up to accomplish different goals.

Here in Houston, City Council meetings stretch over two days. The first session, held Tuesday afternoons, is dedicated entirely to hearing public comment. The second session, held on Wednesday mornings, is for conducting city business and voting on agenda items.

In Maricopa County, officials have “informal” meetings to hear presentations and “formal” meetings to address action items on their agenda and conduct business.

In the last two months, a formal meeting of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has not lasted longer than two hours. During that same time, both meetings held by Harris County Commissioners Court lasted longer than seven hours.

Eliminate resolutions

Commissioners court generally spends at least two hours at the beginning of every regular meeting honoring various organizations and employees through resolutions. At the most recent Commissioners Court on April 23, there were 18 resolutions between the four commissioners and county judge.

After the Abdelraoufsinno asked questions about Commissioners Court’s meeting structure, county officials attempted to address some of their inefficiencies, including the number of resolutions. Court members now will be limited to offering two resolutions per meeting.

Government transparency experts said county officials should eliminate the resolutions at regular meetings, not only to help expedite court, but because it is not an appropriate usage of the public’s time to be “highlighting the pet of the week at the county animal shelter or recognizing employees.”

“Meetings shouldn't be used as PR vehicles,” Cuillier said. “There are other ways of doing PR for the government — it's called press releases, things on the website and social media. They shouldn't be taking up the public's time in a meeting, just doing PR. If they eliminate that, it would be a huge improvement.”

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McKenna Oxenden is a reporter covering Harris County for the Abdelraoufsinno. She most recently had a yearlong fellowship at the New York Times on its breaking news team. A Baltimore native, she previously...

Tim Carlin is the Abdelraoufsinno's civic engagement reporter. An Ohio native, Tim comes to Houston after spending a year in Greenville, South Carolina, covering Greenville County government for The Greenville...